5 things referees can teach us about being hated at work

Imagine you are giving a presentation for work and everyone is waiting for you to screw up. Not only will millions of people all over the world see your mistakes, but millions more on the internet can comment on them instantaneously. And angrily. And very, very colorfully. 

No pressure, right?

Welcome to the world of referees.

Referees, judges and umpires are tasked with enforcing the rules of a sport — frequently thwarting winning players or popular teams. If they do their jobs right, the audience barely notices the officials. However, if an official makes a glaring blunder in a crucial moment of an important game, that official can become the center of a storm of controversy.

Like many, I am guilty of taking officials for granted and criticizing them if they make a call against my favorite sports team. They have one of the toughest jobs in entertainment and it’s not going to get any easier now that professional sports leagues are trying to appeal to a more global and social media-savvy audience, attracting more eyeballs and stirring up even more emotion. 

Referees Are the Managers for an Entire Sport

The structure of professional sports is not unlike the configuration of a conventional workplace. Professional athletes are (well-compensated) workers and coaches are their direct supervisors.

Like referees, not all managers are universally adored. Their purpose is to reach a company goal and get the best out of their subordinates, not necessarily to make friends.

Occasionally, an executive who has a tendency be unpopular can hire someone else better communicate unpopular business decisions. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wanted to continue as the company’s innovative, likeable chairman — and maybe avoid his legacy of arrogant quotes — but he realized the company needed a firmer hand to maintain order so he added former Google executive Sheryl Sandberg as chief operating officer to keep things buttoned up.

However most unpopular managers don’t have the luxury to hire someone to face the criticism. This is where you can look to referees to learn how to handle conflict and a little resilience.

1. Criticism rarely goes away, so get used to it

Senior NFL official Walt Coleman was the head referee for the controversial “Tuck Rule” game in 2002 between the Patriots and Raiders in the AFC Divisional playoff. Coleman’s crew overturned a call during a crucial point in the contest and the Patriots ended up winning the game.

Coleman says he still receives criticism from the decision. He adds, “It doesn’t go away. It still floats around and I still receive emails [about it].”

2. Keep your cool, no matter how bad the other guy is

Officials are routinely scrutinized for how they call a game, but sometimes the pressure from the job can boil over and things can go too far.

That’s when it’s useful to remember that your mistakes in judgment may be forgotten, but stories of a bad attitudue will follow you pretty much forever, so keep your cool.

Former NBA referee Joey Crawford was patrolling the court for 35 years before he retired in 2016. He was prolifichaving officiated 2,561 regular season games, 374 playoff games, and an impressive 50 NBA Finals games.

However, Crawford might be more recognized as the guy who ejected NBA Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan for laughing at him from the bench. The two then engaged in an on-court verbal altercation, with Duncan claiming Crawford challenged him to a fight.

Crawford was suspended for the incident and cites it as one of the biggest regrets of his career. He admits that to this day, the confrontation with the NBA legend still comes up from time to time. Crawford says he “can’t go anywhere without somebody asking me about Tim Duncan.”

3. Control your ego and don’t flip out when you’re questioned

The major sports leagues have implemented regulations that encourage officials to take more responsibility for their calls.

Of course, the replay systems mean referees are challenged about their knowledge all the time now, which means it’s even more important to control their egos.  

The NFL, MLB and NBA have all implemented replay systems to help ensure that the right calls are made in the flow of a game. In the NFL, head coaches can throw red “challenge flags” onto the field to immediately contest the previous play. Teams keep a close eye on game action and if they believe a referee missed a call or made the incorrect call, there is a system to in place so officials have to review the play again.

The MLB is the last of the major sports to incorporate a replay system. During a game, each manager is allocated one challenge attempt. The MLB has long been less than enthusiastic about adapting any change so it’s a significant sign of the times that even a sport rooted in tradition like baseball wants to hold officials accountable.

The NBA also has its own replay system that kicks in during the last two minutes of a game, when victory or defeat is often decided. The Association takes things further by releasing a Last Two Minute (L2M) report, a play-by-play account of what referees called in the last two minutes, to the public after certain games.

4. Be prepared and know your job inside out

If you know you’re going to be challenged, or face conflict, it’s best to prepare and come armed with facts. There’s a twofold benefit: you pay better attention, and you won’t be caught off-guard if someone challenges your knowledge.

Some officials tried to prepare for the moment when they would be forced to make a game-changing call. Gerry Austin, who worked as an NFL referee from 1982-2007, would meet with his fellow officials before games and watch film of the two teams set to play.

Contemplating the possible scenarios that might arise in a game helped to keep Austin focused on the goal. “You want to create an even playing field and let the players decide the game,” he said.

5. Be charming and well-presented

Let’s be honest: charm works. People are much more likely to be angry towards jerks than they are towards nice, interesting, colorful people. Good clothes and grooming really are like armor, too.

Former NBA referee Steve Javie understood this. He took a rather unorthodox approach to deal with big games.

Javie would get a distinct haircut in an attempt to deflect attention from the calls he would make. “I figured if people, broadcasters and the like, noticed my hair, then they’d be less likely to notice my calls, in case I got anything wrong,” he said.

Remember: Experience makes you tougher

While most people would collapse under the weight of the dislike that referees face, they only get tougher with time. The more extreme situations you see, the less likely you are to sweat the small stuff.

Despite the burden and scrutiny of the work, for the most part, officials enjoy their work. 24-year veteran NFL official Ed Hochuli embraces the pressure, describing the job as an “adrenaline rush.”

Newly retired MLB umpire John Hirschbeck always kept the prestige of the job in mind.

“I’ve been very, very blessed. I really have,” he insisted. “It’s just an honor. It’s every minor-league umpire’s dream to become a major-league umpire.”

That kind of ease and gratitude can be a model for anyone who feels like they’re immersed in a lot of conflict. Referees still love their jobs despite the fact that a missed call in the Super Bowl can alters the outcome of the game can draw the ire of thousands of fans in attendance and live in infamy for all of history. If they can, you can too.