For the Love of Refereeing

By Lloyd Graff

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.

NBA Referee, Marc Davis

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?

Share this post

10 thoughts on “For the Love of Refereeing

    1. Robert Ducanis

      Hi Lloyd,

      Being a Notre Dame grad, I have no allegiance to either team. I could come up with a myriad of stuff that went against Notre Dame over the years, but then again, they have had calls in their favor that probably evened things out. I’m still ticked off when Torii Hunter, Jr. got shellacked in endzone against Texas and suffered a severe concussion on obvious head-to-head contact. It was textbook example of targeting and was not called. They had to cart the kid off of the field on a stretcher.

      Your Michigan Wolverines have a rather big game against Michigan State in Lansing this weekend, do they not?

  1. Todd Miller

    Veteran umpire Jim Joyce took a perfect game away from Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga when calling an Indians baserunner safe at first when he was clearly out by a step in the top of the 9th inning with the home team Tigers leading, 3-0. That incident during the 2010 season accelerated the move to use video replay to review safe-out calls.

  2. Lloyd+Graff

    Do you think umpires who miss a ball and strike call, should do a makeup call. John Smoltz and Ron Darling who are doing the playoffs both seem to think they do it, and as expitchers, seem to have no problem with it.

    1. Todd Miller

      In general, I have no problem with that philosophy because umpires and are humans who sometimes make mistakes. The problem relates to critical game situations such as the deprivation of a perfect game referenced and the recent strike 3 call to end the deciding Game 5 of the Giants-Dodgers National League Division Series. In that instance, first base umpire Gabe Morales claimed that the Giants’ batter, Wilmer Flores, did not check his swing when he clearly did, and the bad call sent the Giants home for the winter.

  3. Daniel

    Without a doubt, it was the blown call at 1st base that cost our Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.
    For those who don’t recall, with 2 outs in the 9th inning Armando induced a ground ball to Miguel Cabrera playing 1st base. He fielded the ball and tossed it to Galarraga who was covering the bag in plenty of time and beat the runner by at least half a step.
    The ump (Jim Joyce) blew the call and the stadium went wild with rage!
    There were still no replays used in baseball at that time, so the call stood.
    The next day after Joyce had reviewed the play and realized that he crushed this young pitcher’s dream, he admitted to blowing the call.
    He apologized to Galarraga and Armando forgave him the next day when he was allowed to present the line-up card to Joyce as the home plate ump.
    They both showed extreme class, but Joyce has to live with that asterisk for the rest of his life.

  4. Dave

    You can do a lot with video review and robot officials at the professional level if desired. But the vast majority of sports are played by us amateurs and mostly kids. There is never going to be enough money to replace those officials so we all just have to find a way to live with the odd blown call. We like to complain about the officials but we can’t play without them.

  5. Noah

    Hue Hollins foul call on Pippin in game 5 of the 1994 NBA Playoffs.

    Totally BS. Particularly at the end of the game. Perhaps the Bulls would have one a Championship without Michael Jordan.

    To quote

    After the game, Phil Jackson didn’t take any questions when he addressed the media. He made one statement that lasted exactly 38 seconds. His main point: “I’ve seen a lot of things happen in the NBA, but I’ve never seen anything happen like what happened at the end of the game.”

    The Knicks wound up winning the series in seven games.

    “Have I ever seen a single call make a difference like that?” Pippen says. “No. Never ever.
    It cost us the whole series.”

  6. Ken

    I am a long-time official, not at the pro level, I’ve done some junior college softball and baseball, but a lot of high school baseball, softball, volleyball, and soccer. I only do basketball now, because I really do enjoy it. But it is getting insufferable the amount of grief and hassle I take, from the players to the coaches to the parents to spectators in the stands, everybody thinks they know and see things better than you do. There is a tremendous lack of quality officials, I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years, and a lot of the veterans I know either are tired of it, or simply don’t think it’s worth $75/game to be called every name in the book and then have people waiting for you in a parking lot for a confrontation afterwards. This is what it has become, people think it’s a part of the game to abuse the officials and a complete lack of respect will cost everyone in the long run. I am still doing basketball, but I’ll be done soon, and as I look around the people left, I don’t see any young people really coming up to fill the ranks. It’s going to be a problem, if kids wanna play sports, there has to be officials to be there and take shit and give their time.

    And I know a lot of quality officials that say the amount of grief has increased several times over, people make mistakes, every single profession makes mistakes, most officials I know try very hard to do a great job, mistakes are still made. Welcome to the human race.


Comments are closed.