Umpires and Allegories

May 22, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Michael Stewart’s podcast “Against the Rules” is about “what’s happened to fairness — in financial markets, newsrooms, basketball games, courts of law, and much more” (according to the Website blurb). What happens to legitimacy, to faith in the rule of law, if everyone is screaming, “Ref, you suck,” (the title of the first episode)?

Lewis talked about this question at the 92nd Street Y with fellow journalist and podcasater Malcolm Gladwell.  Lewis says that one inspiration for the series was what happened after a close play at home in a softball game played by nine-year old girls. It happened ten years earlier. But it can easily be an allegory for tactics and a tactician of the present moment.


 (If Blogger has deleted this audio clip, you can go here and listen. It's about 2:20.)

The story continues (to hear the rest of it, get the entire episode and push the slider to about 12:40), but the excerpt here is sufficient. It shows a winning-obsessed and angry man using his position of power to bully an impartial judge. I chose to end the clip at the point where the angry bully says, “You’re fired.” (We’re not long on subtlety here at the Socioblog. For a recent “Ref, you suck” moment from the leader of the free world, see this post from two weeks ago.)

Lewis has another anecdote turned allegory about another man on the far right becoming enraged at impartial judges who threaten his privilege. This time, it’s Curt Schilling.




 Lewis is worried about what happens when influential people (the stars of sports, media, and politics) encourage people to dismiss the refs as partisan agents helping out their own side. In sports, says Lewis, as the calls have gotten more accurate, fans and players have become even more outraged at the refs. I’m not sure he’s right, and even if he is right today, attitudes and behavior may soon change. It’s hard to imagine John McEnroe yelling “You cannot be serious!” and other verbal abuse at the Hawk-Eye replay system.*

But that’s sports. Chief Justice Roberts famously said that what he does as a judge is to “call balls and strikes.” But the courts have no pitch-track machine, no Hawk-Eye, no hi-def, slo-mo replay. So Lewis is right to worry that if the independence and authority of courts and other referees dwindles, the biggest bullies will be the winners even more than they already are.

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* In this anecdote about Schilling v. Pitch-Track, Lewis says parenthetically, “Why they even keep the umpires there is another question, ’cause the machine could just do it.”

Today (May 23), Kendall Baker of Axios sports brings this news:

An electronic radar system called TrackMan will soon be calling balls and strikes in the Atlantic League, an independent East Coast league that has emerged as MLB's testing ground for new rules and equipment initiatives. 

In a simple test to make sure that TrackMan data could be successfully transmitted and understood, home plate umpires were fitted with earpieces that relayed calls to them one-tenth of a second after the ball crossed the plate.

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