A Referee Marches On (Much to Kentucky Fans’ Chagrin)
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The most unlikely participant in Saturday night’s national men’s basketball semifinal between South Carolina and Gonzaga was neither the seventh-seeded Gamecocks, who had lost the opening round of their conference tournament, nor the Bulldogs, who were playing in their first Final Four in program history.
The real surprise inclusion was the sandy-haired man who climbed onto the raised court before tipoff: the longtime referee John Higgins.
After Higgins worked North Carolina’s round of 8 win over Kentucky last month, some Kentucky fans — furious about calls he made that they felt denied the Wildcats a victory — reportedly issued death threats against him and inundated the Facebook page of his Omaha-based roofing business with digital graffiti.
Yet there was Higgins on Saturday as the crew chief in a Final Four game — the eighth Final Four for the veteran official, who was profiled in Sports Illustrated last year as one of the most respected referees in the college game.
This was not arbitrary. In college basketball, the teams are not the only ones that compete over a regular season and then are funneled into the N.C.A.A. tournament until only the best of the best remain.
According to J. D. Collins, the N.C.A.A.’s national coordinator of officiating, he and a group of regional advisers review more than 560 regular-season games to determine the 100 officials asked to work the tournament each year. Those officials advance to ensuing rounds by their meticulously reviewed performances in the tournament itself.
“John’s regional performance justified this,” Collins said, referring to his Final Four assignment. Collins added that the N.C.A.A. “went above and beyond” to provide Higgins and his family with extra security in light of the circumstances. (An inquiry made on Sunday to Higgins through his business was not returned.)
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That a highly regarded official was subjected to such extreme blowback — in a game in which his bosses felt he performed well — illustrated the difficult situation in which college basketball referees operate.
A single decision can affect not only the futures of players, coaches and teams, but also the referee’s own livelihood. In a big game, like the Kentucky-North Carolina showdown or even Monday night’s North Carolina-Gonzaga matchup in the N.C.A.A. final, the stakes, the emotions and the reactions are only magnified.
“Nobody’s harder on officials than me, but I feel sorry for them,” said Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, who like everyone else interviewed for this article said that the reaction from some Kentucky partisans was beyond the pale.
(The N.C.A.A. condemned the invective aimed at Higgins, and in statements and posts on Twitter, the university and Coach John Calipari encouraged fans to exercise good sportsmanship.)
Just landed in Houston. Before I head to Phoenix, I wanted to take this time to thank our fans for their support all season long.
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) 29 March 2017
College referees encounter frequently altered rules: In just the past few years, the men’s shot clock has been shortened; the restricted area underneath the basket has been enlarged; and foul definitions, including the highly subjective block/charge distinction, have been modified. They also must officiate games featuring disparate styles and talent levels.
And unlike N.B.A. referees — unionized employees whose ranks the N.B.A. is hoping to increase, reducing the number of games each must officiate — college referees are independent contractors with a financial interest in maximizing the number of games they work, arguably to the detriment of their on-court performances or their focus on nonbasketball businesses, or both.
“A lot of these guys have got two jobs,” Izzo said. (To wit: Higgins’s roofing business, whose website is rooferees.com.)
Collins, formerly a referee, disputed that college referees were overworked, telling reporters on Sunday in a round-table discussion that he felt his best years as an official were the ones when he devoted himself to basketball full time.
He also said that the N.C.A.A. had examined making its men’s basketball referees full-time employees, but that the costs, at least in the short term, appeared prohibitive. Absent that status, referees must align themselves with a conference (or more) and create their own busy schedules.
Their supporters note that the performances of the best referees are regularly outstanding. Art Hyland, the men’s basketball secretary-rules editor, said that the N.C.A.A.’s reviews and analyses showed that referees in the tournament had gotten 19 of every 20 calls correct. (An uncalled goaltending violation in Gonzaga’s second-round victory over Northwestern was, the N.C.A.A. said in a statement last month, in the minority.)
But there is no panacea for fans’ being upset at referees.
“You know going into this business,” said Ed Hightower, a retired college basketball referee who was the prime subject of Bob Katz’s 2015 book, “The Whistleblower.” “And you know as you evolve into the face of college basketball — because you’ve earned that right to work those huge games, as John Higgins has — you know going in that what you have to do in your mind is not allow that criticism to impact you.”
He added, “At the end of the day, it’s more important to be fair and honest and have integrity than to be worried about what someone is going to say about you.”
“I’ve held a grudge since 1981 against a referee,”
Trends in the game and in its presentation to the public have conspired to increase scrutiny on referees, however. Replays are better, and more numerous, and echo chambers like Twitter can circulate and amplify complaints at lightning speed.
“It’s like this storm — the more games, the more visibility, therefore the more people think that they can ‘know’ them,” St. Joseph’s Coach Phil Martelli said. “And then you mix in the volatility of social media, and it’s not healthy.”
Izzo added, “When you have 73 different television angles and an official doesn’t, we’ve made it worse on them.”
Of course, like politics, all complaining about referees is local. Collins said that during one season he worked as a referee, Gene Keady, the former longtime Purdue coach, was 2-9 in games Collins had officiated. (That, Collins acknowledged, is more of one team’s games than any referee should work.) The next season, the Boilermakers were 6-1 in Collins’s games, prompting Keady to compliment Collins on his improved craft.
But working the refs is one of the sports world’s oldest professions.
“I’ve held a grudge since 1981 against a referee,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said on Sunday, declining to name his perceived archenemy.
But, he added, in reference to Higgins: “We are playing a game. We are providing entertainment. And for it to go to that extent to a very good referee, who has had a very good career, that was pretty harsh.”