Why two referees — at least — is better than one for GAA

Okay, so it’s not going to happen, but imagine for a moment one – just one – The Sunday Game this summer without mention of a referee’s name.
Why two referees — at least — is better than one for GAA

A world where you could hop into the car after being at a game, turn on the radio and find Marty and his squad discussing the decisions made by players and management only and not those of a specific individual match official.

Where referees could not necessarily be heroes, but at least be anonymous, just for one day.

It actually shouldn’t be as much of a stretch as it seems.

A few weeks ago while over in America, this column was in a hotel bar, watching an NBA playoff game featuring LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers when during a break in play the camera momentarily closed in on one of the three referees, casually yet diligently holding the match ball in the palm of his hand. And the thought struck me.

That’s the first and probably only close-up of a referee I’ve seen all evening. I don’t know his name. Come to think of it, I don’t know the name of a single NBA referee – and I follow the NBA a lot.

There’s a reason for that. In every game there’s not just one individual referee – there’s three of them.

Not only does that greatly reduce the number of officiating errors, but whenever they do get the odd call wrong, it’s not pinned on any one particular individual ref, to the point none of them really get blamed at all.

In recent days, one of the biggest stories on American sports talk shows has been a play involving the San Antonio Spurs star player Kawhi Leonard in the first game of the Western Conference finals series against the Golden State Warriors.

Zaza Pachulia: Intentionally undercut Kawhi Leonard’s landing space. Pic: Getty Images
Zaza Pachulia: Intentionally undercut Kawhi Leonard’s landing space. Pic: Getty Images

During the third quarter, with his team in a commanding 24-point lead, Leonard aggravated an ankle injury while taking a jump shot contested by the Warriors’ Zaza Pachulia. Leonard had to leave the game and consequently the Spurs went on to lose.

To the casual eye, Pachulia’s challenge seemed entirely legitimate and honest; whatever contact made with Leonard minimal and innocuous. But credible discerning observers have contended it was a dirty play: that by stepping out towards the shooter the way he did, Pachulia intentionally undercut Leonard’s landing space.

In real time, the referees ruled it was a personal foul, but not a flagrant foul, a sort of equivalent to a black card. There and then ESPN’s match co-commentator, Jeff Van Gundy, a former NBA finals coach himself, called it.

The match officials had got it wrong: it should have been a flagrant foul. Van Gundy was decisive and authoritative in his judgment but what was telling from this viewpoint was how there was no indignation aimed at any of the match officials.

It’s been the same with all the commentary about the incident. Pachulia has come in for a lot of scrutiny but I have yet to hear or read the name of any of the three referees. Maybe in San Antonio the man on the street is outraged but you think other than Pachulia he can put a name to the injustice?

Here, it’s fair to say it’s a little different. Here, a game-changing call or non-call like that ensures only infamy, not anonymity, for a referee. Here, even the dog, not just the man, on the street knows and curses the name of the particular individual.

Pat McEnaney. Joe McQuillan. Cormac Reilly. Maurice Deegan. And that’s just in Mayo. In Cork there’s been Tommy Sugrue and Tommy Howard – and that’s just confining it to All-Irelands refereed by men called Tommy.

Wherever you go it’s the same. Paddy Russell. Paddy Collins (actually, we might be pushing it there – no one seemed to have a bad word about Paddy). Paddy Hughes. And again, that’s only keeping to it refs called Paddy.

You never hear about a certain referee ‘getting the SuperBowl’ the way you’ll hear some ref is after ‘getting the All-Ireland’. But then you never hear of a particular SuperBowl ref taking any flack either.

It’s not all on one guy. Here – even for all his army of umpires and linesmen and fourth-officials – it is. One questionable split-second call – not even a bad one, just a debatable one – and your name can echo for generations in the public memory of a county.

John Denton. John Gough. David Gough. David Coldrick. Dickie Murphy. Jimmy Cooney. At some point in time, every one of those men in black have had their own name publicly blackened because of the scrutiny and pressure that goes with being the sole person on that field with a whistle.

And yet, every year there are people still willing to step up and risk following in that tradition. It’s truly a wonder, their courage and service. But they should not have to be so brave. They should not have to endure and risk such public humiliation.

That they do has to be an impediment to the recruitment of more refs. In a recent piece with the Independent’s Martin Breheny, Paul Earley made the point soccer and rugby can get by with one referee because both are played on smaller pitches and have an offside rule.

A GAA pitch extends to three acres. That’s too much for one man to cover, especially with the speed the game is now played at. A referee might have two linesmen and four umpires but they can’t make calls on routine playing calls.

Earley himself played Australian Rules football. In recent years he coached International Rules. Both sports have two referees and it’s been his experience that both sports are the better for it. But there’s another unmentioned reason why just as two heads are better than one, at least two referees is better than one.

By having more eyes to help them scrutinise the play, referees themselves will be less scrutinised by the rest of us. By getting to share the responsibility, they get to diffuse the blame. Turn on the radio or TV without hearing mention of their name. Maybe even get to holiday sometime in Mayo or Cork.

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