Sports Nut

Worst Ref Ever

The plight of the college basketball referee.

Referee Ed Hightower, Bruh
Widely, vividly, heatedly, and imaginatively pilloried referee Ed Hightower explains his call to Jordan Taylor of the Wisconsin Badgers during a game in February 2012.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Excerpted from The Whistleblower: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball by Bob Katz. Out now from ForeEdge.

A survey of the torrent of expressed opinions posted by college basketball fans (reviewing these is not an exercise recommended for the time-constrained or the squeamish) reveals there are literally dozens of refs working Division I men’s basketball who have been castigated as “the worst f–king ref ever!” Indeed, it appears that the only way for a ref to avoid this label is to be too inexperienced or too obscure. The list includes, perhaps not coincidentally, many who are otherwise recognized as the most skilled and accomplished, including Jim Burr, Karl Hess, Mike Sanzere, Tim Higgins, Jamie Luckie, Pat Driscoll, Ted Valentine, and Tony Greene, who had the distinction of being the focus of a blog exclusively devoted to his alleged malfeasance. “Is Tony Greene on the Take?” consisted of dozens of posts spanning several seasons in which the kindest thing ever said was, “Tony Greene’s officiating not suspicious in this one.” (Greene, a project manager for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, has reffed five NCAA finals. “All a part of the job” was his take on the vitriolic attacks.)

Ridicule comes with the territory, and college basketball’s maniacal fan base of passionate home-team loyalists is notoriously easy to provoke. Still, it’s worth noting that Ed Hightower has perhaps been more widely, vividly, heatedly, and imaginatively pilloried than any ref in college basketball history. While that dubious status is partly a function of the sheer volume of games he was part of during a three-decade career, along with the prestige of those games (countless times on national television, 12 times officiating the Final Four, four times reffing the NCAA championship game), it was also a function of a weird fetish for vilification that’s caught on with fans.

Mocking Hightower through Photoshop manipulation became a bizarre hobby on sports sites and blogs where, in his zebra shirt, whistle dangling, arm thrust upward for an emphatic call, one can view him straddling a rocket that’s blasting off, leaping onto Oprah’s sofa to make a call, whistling Jesus for a traveling violation as he walks across the water, riding a giraffe bareback, cavorting onstage with the Village People, on roller skates leading the pack in a roller derby, helping Mel Gibson lead the charge in Braveheart, lolling on the verdant river bank in the painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, superimposed onto the Lorraine Motel balcony in the famous photo where Martin Luther King lay dying.

Twitter and fan sites are hardly models of decorum, yet still: “I hope Ed Hightower croaks after this game.” “Ed Hightower again? Why do we always get this clown?” “Just saw on Twitter that Hightower’s refereeing the game tonight. This team can’t catch a break.” “Ten Things the Big 10 Should Do Before It Expands. #1 Put Ed Hightower on a one-way rocket to the sun.” “I promised you’d we’d be ever vigilant at All Along Ed’s Watchtower, where bad officiating is our business.” “One Fan’s Plea That NCAA Referee Ed Hightower Must Go.”

What’s all that about?

A stranger to our shores, uninitiated in the habits of our sports culture, might be forgiven for assuming that spectators to an amateur athletic contest between institutions devoted to higher education would demonstrate a kinder approach to partisanship than, say, European soccer hooligans. But that’s an assumption only a stranger would make. Officiating miscues, whether real or perceived, are savored by sports fans, and never more so than when the game turns sour. Ripping the ref has become something like an entitlement of the fan experience. It’s as if no game is complete without it.

As it turned out, the Badger fan hollering out “Hightower, you suck” one frigid Saturday at a game I attended in Madison, Wisconsin, quickly simmered down and resumed amiably chatting with his buddies. Pretending that I’d missed the disputed sequence, I politely inquired what exactly had so disturbed him about the call Hightower had made. The fellow just smiled. He wasn’t about to defend or explain the outburst. With a swig of beer and a no-big-deal shoulder shrug, he let me know that whatever it had been, he sure wasn’t about to let it ruin his afternoon.

The game having long since ceased to be competitive and with time quickly running out, this mild-mannered Badger fan had merely wanted his money’s worth.

* * *

True officiating travesties, as opposed to the invented or imagined ones, are red meat to ravenous fans. Fortunately for the protein-hungry, each season reliably produces a handful of blown calls and glaring doozies that invariably provide plenty to chew on.

One that makes everyone’s “10 Worst” list, for those who keep such lists, is the 2011 Big East tournament game between Rutgers and St. John’s. It would possibly be considered the very worst ever, had the stakes been slightly higher, had it been, say, a late round NCAA Tournament game.

Down 65–63 with 4.9 seconds left, Rutgers lobbed a long inbounds pass that was intercepted by a St. John’s defender who took a couple of quick dribbles to free himself from traffic and then, thinking the game was over (it was not), picked up his dribble and sprinted with the ball along the sideline, apparently in celebration, stepping out of bounds and flinging the ball into the stands—all before time expired. Despite numerous clear infractions—traveling, out of bounds, delay of game for tossing the ball away—the refs held their whistles. The lead official declared the game over, walking off the court. The other two refs ignored Rutgers’ desperate pleas.

Nearly two years after the game, comments were still being posted at the YouTube page displaying the sequence: “It shows there is a shortage in good officials.” “I don’t even know the rules and I know that’s a travel.” “That shit needs to be retracted or the officials fired for that crap!!”

On Jan. 1, 2013, in the opening game of the Big East season, Marquette’s Junior Cadougan drained a long three-pointer at the end of regulation time to tie UConn. When the teams reassembled to start the overtime, UConn’s Shabazz Napier controlled the ball off the tip and drove to the hoop. A leaping Marquette player swatted the shot away in what was clearly a case of goaltending. The whistle was blown. The bucket awarded to UConn.

OK so far. Except, well, except for the fact that at the start of the overtime each team had mistakenly lined up facing the wrong end of the court. Realizing this only after the goaltending call was made, the refs hastily conferred. It’s safe to say none had ever confronted this predicament before. More or less winging it, the refs opted to nullify the basket that had been awarded to UConn, reasoning that it was technically not possible to goaltend at your own basket, which, in retrospect, had been exactly the case.

The officials, it turned out, were wrong. The rulebook (Rule 5, Section 1, Article 3) states, in essence, that play should have resumed with the teams heading in the right direction, but any play that occurred before the discovery should be counted. Marquette went on to win by six points.

Wrote Troy Machir on, “We witnessed something last night that I am certain I have never witnessed at the Division-I level. Thank you Big East referees, for making sure we learn something new every day.”

Referee Karl Hess admitted the error and apologized. UConn coach Kevin Ollie graciously said the blown call was not the reason his squad lost.

Some fans were less forgiving.

“Hess is a protected figure (IMO) just like any other pro-Carolina goon in this scandal of theirs. He is compiling a resume that should at least get him demoted to a lower division or high school officiating,” one fan posted on after the game.

“How many times does Karl Hess have to screw up before someone raises a protest?” wrote another.

In the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, No. 1 seed Syracuse was challenged throughout by No. 16 seed UNC–Asheville. Wrote Sports Illustrated of the game, “Put Thursday in a box, one of those places where those who saw it will remember … how the night turned in part on not one, not two, but three controversial plays in the second half and how those plays turned an antiseptic modern arena into a seething, emotional pit and called into question the work of the officials charged with ensuring fairness.”

Wrote Yahoo Sports, “It’s nearly impossible for a No. 16 to defeat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It’s even harder when Goliath has help from the officials.”

This game, which Syracuse won 72–65, featured several highly questionable rulings that went against UNC–Asheville: a Syracuse block of a UNC–Asheville shot after it apparently bounced off the backboard; a lane violation call made late in the game on a missed Syracuse one-and-one free throw when a UNC–Asheville player stepped into the arc behind the shooter; and finally, with 35 seconds left and Syracuse up by 3 points, Syracuse’s attempt to inbounds the ball was thwarted and the ball bounced out of bounds, seemingly off Syracuse. Instead, it was awarded to the Orangemen, effectively ending UNC–Asheville’s chances.

“I’m not going to alibi for the gentlemen in the game,” commented John Adams, the NCAA’s coordinator of officials. “When you see this call, it’s either a foul or you give it to the other team that didn’t knock the ball out-of-bounds. He [the referee] didn’t get it right.”

Jay Bilas, a prominent ESPN announcer and unabashed critic of referees, neatly summarized the prevailing negativity and the popular scapegoating of the referees when he wrote in an April 2012 ESPN blog post, “I believe there are three teams on the floor in every college basketball game: the home team, the away team and the team of officials. The officials are the only team on the floor getting paid and the only team on the floor that does not have an opponent trying to stop it from doing its job correctly. While some mistakes must be expected in any endeavor, there is no excuse for officials making so many mistakes. While they strive to get it right, which is laudable, they should get it right more often than they do … it has become clear to me that college basketball is at its lowest point in the past 30 years [a reference to the decline in aggregate scoring and the rough defensive tactics thought to be responsible]. And I believe the manner in which the game is officiated is the primary culprit for the decline in the game’s quality.”

Refs certainly have their accusers. And when the prosecution finally rests its case, the defense is mandated to remain silent. Referees under attack for alleged wrongdoing are a fairly helpless bunch. With regard to controversial calls, they rarely are allowed by league officials to have much to say publicly by way of explanation, and even when a persuasive explanation exists, it always risks sounding like just another excuse for ineptitude. It’s the referees’ lot to suffer the spitballs and turn the other cheek. Better to say nothing.

The major conferences and the NCAA exercise strict control over the public statements of referees and the process by which they can be questioned by reporters following games. Where a designated “pool reporter” was once able to request to interview officials in their locker room following the game, and then permitted to disseminate quotes from that interview to other media, a highly regulated six-part process must now be followed. The officials are only allowed to weigh in if a question cannot be answered by direct reference to the NCAA rulebook. If a question is deemed to require nuanced interpretation, the official can only be questioned over the phone. Pool reporters cannot directly question game officials on-site following NCAA Tournament games. All postgame officiating questions are to be filtered off-site through the coordinator of officials, John Adams.

The besieged ref is thus often left in the position of a defendant whose lawyer forbids him to take the stand. In the seething court of public opinion, the refs have no advocates and most have learned that the less said the better. For my interviews, Hightower sought and received permission from the Big Ten. Many refs I spoke with and found to be insightful, articulate, and worthy of quoting at length do not appear by name in my book. That was not due to a fetish for anonymity.

It makes for an odd imbalance, this mandatory silence imposed on the accused. There’s no cheering to counteract the condemnation, no kudos as counterweight to the opprobrium. The refs’ only consolation is the personal satisfaction that comes from getting it right under tough conditions. Like performing artists, they know in their gut when they’ve nailed it, even if we do not.

Excerpted from The Whistleblower: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball by Bob Katz, published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England. Used with permission.