A permanent haze shrouds the dividing line between heroism and stupidity – somewhere in that haze live generations of GAA referees.
The impulse that brings referees to choose of their own free will a life of Sundays filled with insult remains a profound mystery.
GAA referees are largely devoid of the narcissism of their counterparts in the English Premier League, whose pursuit of cult status induces nausea.
Nobody who watches — for example — Mark Clattenburg can doubt the scale of adoration that he exhibits for himself. And he is just the latest in a long line who wish the game to be a drama about themselves.
Neither do GAA referees benefit from the international travel — or the immaculate grooming — of elite rugby referees. What can illustrate that better than the watches international rugby referees wear. Tissot PRC 200 RBS 6 Nations Special Edition worn by referees this spring: ‘The PRC 200 reflects the dynamism and passion for sport of both Tissot and the players competing in the Championship perfectly, with its fiery red details and athletic attitude. Like the rugby players themselves, the watch, as the name indicates, is Precise, Robust yet Classy.’ It is difficult to imagine such a sentence written about GAA referees by their ‘corporate partners’.
And yet these are men who, in their own way, can often be as dedicated as the players they referee. The fitness required of referees demands that a particular lifestyle be pursued — this can’t be easy as time passes.
But when it comes down to it, GAA referees could be Olympic athletics blessed with the eyesight of a falcon, impeccable judgement and positively glowing with empathy, and it still would matter little.
The inevitability of losing in sport does not necessarily make it any easier to take.
There are those who say that knowing you gave everything you have — on the pitch and in preparation — allows you to walk away with head unbowed, proud and better able to accept defeat.
And that may very well be true — but it is only true sometimes and usually only true to a point. Indeed, one of the hardest things to accept when you lose is that you are not (or have not been) good enough, despite the fact that you’ve poured your life into something for a year and more.
Softening the cruelty of that fact — or even seeking to erase it altogether — inspires the fashioning of a plausible scapegoat.
And what could be more plausible than the ready-made presence of a referee, not least because of the mistakes they will repeatedly make during games.
Analysis of refereeing mistakes made in English Premier League soccer matches claims that the number of incorrect decisions made by officials in matches sits at 5% to 6% of all decisions that they give. In the way of things, partisan followers of clubs will stand convinced that it is their own team that has been the victim of almost all of that percentage.
Such conviction lends itself to spicy chants about the lineage of referees and their more private habits. It can also extend to death threats by phone, letter and email — which are obviously particularly odious.
Or to (harmless) petitions such as the one taken up by Arsenal fans who demand that Jon Moss never be allowed to referee one of their matches again, after he was the official in charge of their narrow 4-0 defeat to Southampton.
Within the world of Gaelic games, clubs and counties threatening that they will never again play under a particular referee are not unheard of.
And of course — just as in every sport ever devised — referees have made decisions that have defined matches and have subsequently been shown to be entirely wrong.
Usually, in the clamour that follows such a mistake, the cry goes out for increased use of technology. Such cries have propelled the International Football Association Board (the body that shapes the rules of soccer) to move towards trialling video technology for use round every key area of the game, from penalty awards to offside and red cards.
There is an allure in this. There are mistakes that are so obvious that they will speedily be rectified and this is hard to argue against.
But the notion that technology will utterly transform the accuracy of decision- making is not convincing.
What it will most likely do instead is outsource decision-making from the man on the field to another man who is sitting in a room with feeds from multiple TV cameras relayed into various screens.
It is difficult to see how this will not undermine a referee’s authority and still more difficult to see how, in the majority of calls that are marginal, it will eliminate controversy.
There is clear precedence for why this is so. American football introduced replay reviews of decision in 1986 and used them until 1991. It was then decided that they should be abandoned. Replay reviews were then restored in 1999, but were only properly accepted in 2007 after decades of divisive debate.
Probably the great unintended consequence of this debate, and of the move to use TV replays to allow for decisions to be reviewed, is the impact it has had on the rules themselves.
In this respect, the rules of American Football have been changed in respect of what exactly constitutes a proper catch of the ball. They were changed first in 2000 and there were then so many controversies around controversies and catches that the NFL set up a special committee in 2015 to redefine what exactly constitutes a catch — and what doesn’t.
In the process, the complexity of decision-making has been deepened, but not simplified.
And mistakes — essential, vital, costly mistakes — continue to be made, leading to inevitable controversies.
Last weekend’s Superbowl offers a perfect example. Carolina Panthers were heavy favourites but had never previously won a Superbowl. As they sought early momentum, one of their offences featured a contentious catch. The widespread view was that the decision of the referees (that wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery had not caught the ball) was wrong. The Panthers called for the decision to be reviewed. After TV reviews, the decision stood and the Panthers were placed on the backfoot and immediately conceded a score that gave the Denver Broncos the impetus that they needed. And the Panthers never properly recovered.
There were, of course, many reasons why they didn’t recover, but the very need for recovery was directly consequential to a decision that illustrates just how obscure and impenetrable the rules on catching have become.
The broader point here is that video replays which were first introduced to improve TV viewers enjoyment of sport as entertainment has not just changed how games are refereed, but even the nature of the games themselves.
In essence, there is a price to be paid for increased use of technology. And there is still no getting away from the truth that the very best referees in every sport will be the ones who know the game, know the rules and manage the players. And, after everything, it will still remain the case that the most they can hope for is not to be noticed.
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