I have always been baffled why anyone becomes a referee or an umpire. Is it a passion for power or authority? Is it a love of the game and a desire to be around it when you are not talented enough to play it?
I heard some of the answers while listening to People I (Mostly) Admire, a podcast hosted by University of Chicago economics professor Steven Levitt who co-wrote Freakonomics. In a recent episode, Levitt interviewed Marc Davis, one of the most respected NBA referees.
Davis, now 53 years old, played college basketball at the Naval Academy and Howard University. He was trying to find his way after leaving College, realizing he wasn’t good enough to play pro ball. He was substitute teaching at a Catholic high school in Chicago and heard about a grade school league needing a substitute ref for a game. The pay sounded fair, $35 for a 45-minute kids game. He loved basketball and figured his playing skills would make reffing an easy gig. He collected his pea whistle and striped shirt and absolutely loved it.
Grammar school games led to high school games and summer leagues, as well as a desire to be a respected ref who is constantly improving. Mastering the rule book, understanding the proper positioning necessary for accurate calls, and making the contacts that made him the official who coaches wanted in their league, gave him the confidence to believe he could be an NBA referee after just three years of blowing the whistle.
Davis had the temerity to pick up the phone in his mid-twenties and fax and call David Stern, head of the NBA, as well as Matt Winick, who managed NBA officials. With such little experience, they didn’t hire him, but his chutzpah and unbridled passion won him an introduction to the head of referee training for the CBA, the NBA’s minor league at the time. Eventually, he worked enough games to become a CBA ref and earn his chance at the NBA.
Today he is one of the NBA’s most respected referees. He is constantly on the road during the eight-month season and he has traveled the world doing clinics.
I was particularly interested in his story after the controversy with the recent American League Baseball Championship Series, when Laz Diaz, umpiring at home plate, missed 23 ball and strike calls, according to ESPN’s post-game analysis. He had to call 300 pitches in that long game, but he missed one against J.D. Martinez of Boston that Red Sox fans lamented cost the team the game. Immediately, fans started calling for robot umpires, particularly for balls and strikes.
I could see this coming in baseball. They are already experimenting with robots in the minor leagues. I think it is coming because 100 miles per hour fastballs, sweeping breaking pitches that brush a tiny fraction of an inch of the strike zone, and skilled catchers who “frame” the pitches, a technique of disguising the actual location of the pitches, make perfect umpiring virtually impossible.
Referees and umpires know that no matter how skilled they are, how flawless their positioning, how impeccable their command of the rule book, they will be criticized. Yet they come back year after year. They deal with the endless travel, and they tolerate the heckling of the fans.
Marc Davis, the NBA ref, absolutely loves it. He is part of the sport he adores. He gets to be with LeBron James and Joel Embiid and the rest of the NBA stars each night and keep order. He kibbutzes with them and calls fouls they cannot believe.
Davis learned from his father, a Chicago cop who spent his career patrolling the Robert Taylor homes, that when you have final say in a matter, always let the other person have the last word, even after calling a technical foul or a clear traveling violation.
After listening to Davis, I could begin to understand why he runs three miles each night, keeping order among the giants. He just cannot watch enough basketball games.
Questions: Do you want robot referees in the future?
What’s the worst sports call you ever saw?