v31#4 Headwaters — The Subversion of Referees

by | Oct 4, 2019 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Kent Anderson  (Founder, Caldera Publishing Solutions, 290 Turnpike Road, #366, Westborough, MA   01581-2843; Phone: 774-288-9464)

Column Editor’s Note:  This essay is an updated, revised, and expanded version of a post published on “The Geyser,” an e-newsletter written by the author and available at https://thegeyser.substack.com.

Michael Lewis — the author of Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short — has an uncanny knack for tapping into themes developing in the zeitgeist.  His recent podcast, “Against the Rules,”1 examines a trend he’s observed in society — the decline of the human referee in many parts of daily life, and what that’s doing to our idea of fairness.

Disrespect of referees strikes me as profound and highly relevant to publishing, especially scholarly and scientific publishing.  Gatekeepers, referees, and the consequences of these have been targeted for years as irrelevant, outmoded, or objectionable. In their place, we’ve been given algorithms, feeds, and search engines, all of which gatekeep in their own ways, but without an identifiable (or accountable) human behind them.  It’s almost as if we accept humans expressed through technology more than we accept humans expressed through a time-tested process.

Lewis’ first episode examined the travails of actual refereeing in the NBA, talking about how, in the past 1-2 years, the level of argumentation with referees from superstar players has skyrocketed, despite the refereeing being better than ever — thanks to replay, referee training, and more, NBA referees are demonstrably fairer and less biased than ever.  To tell his story, Lewis visited the replay center in Florida, where calls are reviewed by referees off-site.  He talked to psychologists who have found that entitlement makes people more likely to flout rules, believing rules don’t apply to them.  He noted how referees are being worn down by the threats they experience on- and off-court. Finally, he described how children mimic the exasperated, angry reactions they see from star NBA players, driving the cycle of disrespect for referees further into the bloodstream of the sport, and life in general.

An interesting observation among many is that the reason superstar players react so badly to increasingly unbiased and “fair” refereeing is entitlement — they expect their fame and prominence to grant them dispensations from referees.  This always makes me return to the anger some scholars and scientists express toward reviewers and editors, which can seem similar in key ways. Do they feel refereeing doesn’t apply to them anymore? Or that they are entitled to special privileges?

Lewis’ podcast explores other topics — the abdication of regulations around financial institutions that exploit lenders and dodge responsibility for the messes they make, causing financial hardships for students, teachers, and soldiers;  the growing disrespect for editors and grammar; and, why ethicists and ombudsmen are losing leverage.

What’s causing this trend is a bit of a mystery.  There seem to be many sources of subversion of umpires in society, the people calling balls and strikes.  There’s also been a surge of mildly or wildly corrupt practices enabled by those seeking to disrupt society in some manner — technologically, politically, or economically.

The “disruptive” aspect is interesting to ponder.  We’ve been inundated by people praising disruptive thinkers, disruptive businesses, and disruptive leaders.  It’s nearly axiomatic in such an environment that anyone seeking to impose order or boundaries looks like a tool or a fool.  Who needs or wants order when disruption is the way of the world? What is the reward for order when disruption makes some people billions?

Instant replay has also helped to erode the authority and position of referees in sports.  Coaches and spectators are now high-powered armchair referees. For referees, any call might be questioned and overturned.  Getting it “right” now counts more than the action, the fluidity, the spontaneity of sport. I personally hope American baseball never goes to an automated strike zone, as the ability for a pitcher to fool a batter and an umpire seems like a great part of the game.  The same goes for players who make plays that so astound fans and referees alike that the game is distorted by them.  What’s wrong with a player able to generate a “reality distortion field”2 ala Steve Jobs?  That’s part of the magic.

We’re increasingly seeing referees criticized from the top, where the entitled people live.  As a psychologist noted to Lewis, entitled people sometimes feel the rules don’t apply to them.  As Lewis notes, superstar players are complaining more than ever, rather than modeling excellent sportsmanship.  Income inequality may play a factor, as entitled people are actually so well-off now that they do live in a different reality, in effect.  What referee will or must they respect?

The recent U.S. college admissions scandal involving celebrities and entitled parents3 (and their children) provides an interesting window into this issue.  Here were entitled people who felt confident going around the admissions referee.  When caught, some confessed and plead guilty, while at least one has defied the courts and prosecutors, apparently convinced her entitled status will ultimately prevail.

A grammarian Lewis interviews focuses on the moral relativism that has permeated intellectual life, focusing on his dislike for “descriptive grammar” (in which no native English speaker can be said to ever make a grammatical error) and preference for “prescriptive grammar,” in which there are rules and preferences.  His feeling is that most writers and speakers no longer feel shame about mistakes in grammar or spelling.

At the same time, people and places that should be acting as referees are not, adding to the erosion of even the concept of an umpire calling balls and strikes.  Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube are notorious in my mind because they refuse in most cases to act as referees relative to their own platforms. Only now are some controls coming into place, but the idea that it should be a free-for-all remains strong.

Finally, there is the information space of today, where innuendo is easy to purvey, smears are simple to amplify, and doubt easy to sow.  We’ve seen judges, investigators, and referees of all kinds undermined by allegations of racial bias, corruption, and political motivation, all in an attempt to make them appear less fair and impartial.

As referees have been knocked down a few pegs in various ways, we find ourselves in a world where our assumptions about referees have been modified, so that more of us think referees are:

• Not that different from us, and perhaps just as fallible

• Not worthy of respect, and possibly deserving of resentment 

• Possibly corrupt or malign, or able to be portrayed as such

• Irrelevant and unnecessary to the modern information age

• Replaceable by the “crowd” or the empowered individual (see first point)

• Adding little value, slowing things down, and basically annoying us

Given all of the above, how this resolves for scholarly publishing seems to be informed lately by these very dubious questions and claims.  Why do we need referees or editors? These people are fallible, aren’t respected, aren’t necessary in the modern information age, may be malign, are replaceable by the crowd or some rando, and add little value and only slow us down and annoy us.

What Lewis finds, however, is that there are people who are natural referees, arbiters, and umpires — individuals who by disposition, inherent ability, and natural demeanor command respect, deliver just decisions, establish zones of fair play as easily as anything, and keep things from becoming imbalanced.  But today, we don’t celebrate the excellent judge, the superb and consistent editor, or the judicious moderator. We bristle, we rebel, and we push away.

Lewis is onto something here.  There is no easy answer, so I’ll be listening to his podcast and reading his books for as long as he’s productive.  He’s a good judge of what matters.  

Kent Anderson is the CEO and founder of Caldera Publishing Solutions, editor of “The Geyser,” a past-President of the Society of Scholarly Publishing, and founder of “The Scholarly Kitchen.”  He has worked as an executive of a technology startup, and as a publishing executive at numerous non-profits, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.


1.  https://atrpodcast.com/

2.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reality_distortion_field

3.  https://thegeyser.substack.com/p/colleges-reject-freelance-corruption

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