Why Are There So Many Corrupt Referees in Sports?

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The World Cup in South Africa is upon us and so are charges of bribery and cheating around the referees. The latest emanate from England where a respected English soccer leader David Triesman charges that Spain and Russia may colluding to bribe officials in exchange for support for bids to host the soccer club. In the same week four German soccer players were suspended as part of an investigation into throwing soccer games that spans eleven countries in Europe.

FIFA is vigorously pursuing the bribery charges before the World Cup opens and with good reasons. If the integrity and skill of the referees is in question the entire moral and competitive edifice of competitve sport collapses.

The rule bound nature of games places immense moral weight upon clarity of rules and the fair and honest interpretation of the rules. The point of the game is that rules define standards of permissable performance; they define the rules of interactions where contact is permitted or not; they define what constitutes a "score" "point" "run" etc. In the end rules literally determine what constitutes winning and losing. No rules are perfect and no rules are perfectly clear, and many rules sometimes clash, so the rightness and honor of competitive outcomes relies upon the integrity of the referees, umpires or judges in athletic competition.

The ongoing soccer scandal involves both game throwing but also encroaches on the other side of rule defined competition, the integrity of the judges. The whole moral edifice of sports competition collapses if the oft reviled artibers of rules are corrupted. No sport escapes these ravages. The Olympic ice skating scandal where a French judge voted for the Russian pairs; the NBA referee Tom Donaghy who bet on games, gave confidential information and changed calls are both recent high profile examples.

Rules need interpretation. Self-enforced rules seldom work as the stakes of competition go up. As stakes go up the impetus is to create a certified core of individuals who can exercise professional judgment. Most referees at professional and high level amateur competitions have earned their spurs through schooling and long apprentices often beginning on sand lot play.

Competition depends upon both sides and all players having a level playing field. The referees will interpret rules consistently for both teams and for all players. Consistency and accuracy ground the integrity of athletic refereeing. Oddly enough, accuracy may be impossible given the speed and complexity of calls, so the true anchor becomes consistency for range of calls, same strike zone, same tackling calls, same hand checking calls. Fairness trumps accuracy, but both are vital to the integrity.

Four strategies exist to protect the integrity of referees. First involves the training and certifying of the judgers. Second, This can be reinforced by having oversight bodies who review the activity and decide whether they will be renewed for the next year. These review groups also oversee the selection of the "best" referees for the high profile championships. Third, This professionalism is augmented by having crews together who can check and reinforce each other (or be co-members of a conspiracy of silence). Fourth, in many sports the power of modern video technology has been introduced with multi-angle cameras to permit video review of close vital calls. But this simply refocuses the interpretative power but in a more public and group oriented way.

But modern athletes, even at lower amateur levels. is bigger, faster, stronger. Although linear sports like swimming or golf or net protected sports like tennis have more clarity and simplicity in judging, fast moving contact sports like basketball, soccer, football or lacrosse pose huge difficulties for referees. They simply cannot cover and see every aspect of the game on a large field with large numbers of players.

Rules will be violated and unseen; calls will be close and instant, most right but a few wrong. Well intentioned trained individuals make mistakes on calls or miss calls; sometimes the most ire arises of noncalls which provide an advantage to the person who violated the rules. Most referees or judges create common law expectations for a game. Most athletes and coaches ask that the parameters be known and consistent for both sides. They can live with variations as long as the variations are reliable and consistent.

If the referees corrupt their calls, it is very hard to discover unless a pattern emerges over time as it did with Donaghy. But even then no one of the crews would snitch on him and it took outside review to discover. Referees can be entangled, as athletes can, in their own needs or gambling or income shortfalls. This provides an opening for

ever vigilant gamblers and their runners who hang around the teams sniffing for insider knowledge or signs of weakness that can be exploited with money or blackmail.

This leads to another strategy that depends on in-depth background investigations and checks for referees in high profile and high stakes events. The integrity of sports depends upon the referees, without them it is not sport, is not a game of talent and skill and combat, but a game of unfair advantages, unreliable rules and outcomes that do not reflect the true competition of the teams. In Brazil and China soccer no longer exists as a sport anyone respects and in China even children no longer aspire to play soccer. It is not longer a game but a choreographed joke like modern wrestling. This is the end of sport without honest referees.