Refereeing in the digital age

NCAA referee John Higgins faced online harassment from Kentucky fans following refereeing the Wildcat's Elite Eight game.Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP

Story by Blake Sandlin, Assistant Sports Editor

A loud whistle sounds, prompting an echo of boos to fill an arena. It’s a reaction an NCAA referee is all too familiar with, but in a world driven by social media, it doesn’t stop there.

From verbal insults and harassing phone calls to personal attacks and death threats, referees are becoming more and more susceptible to criticism and harassment as a result of sports fans and their access to the internet.

Several weeks ago, long-time collegiate referee, John Higgins, was met with thousands of harassing phone calls, negative reviews on his roofing companies Facebook page and even death threats after Kentucky basketball fans felt victimized by some of Higgins’ calls in their Elite Eight matchup against North Carolina.

While Higgins plans on suiting up in the black and white for his 29th season next year, he was met with lots of questions from fellow officials regarding how to survive in the harsh climate of collegiate refereeing, to which Higgins blames social media.

“Nobody has ever seen anything like this,” Higgins said in an interview with the Omaha World-Herald. “This is crazy.”

Curtis Shaw works as the coordinator of men’s basketball officials, overseeing referees in the Big 12, OVC, Conference USA and Southland Conference. Shaw agrees referees in the digital age are more open to harassment, but that harassment, he says, is unwarranted.

“I think they’re more susceptible, but most of it has no basis — it’s just a fan,” Shaw said. “Fans, they lose, so they’ve got to blame somebody. One of my big concerns with today’s society is that no one just loses a game anymore, everybody has to look for an excuse or find somebody to blame. Sometimes your team just gets beat.”

Shaw, who has officiated six Final Four games in his career as an NCAA referee, said the pressure referees face when they step onto the court in this day and age is substantially greater than it was before he retired in 2010.

“Well, it’s always pressure,” Shaw said. “In this day of social media and 42 cameras and all of the different replays, it’s even more so than it probably was in 2000.”

Despite that pressure, the correct calls by officials far outweigh the incorrect over the course of a season, Shaw said.

“We average, when we put all of our numbers together within a year, we get around 92 to 93 percent of our plays right,” he said. “Well, out of 100 plays that’s a pretty good percentage, and truthfully, it’s a better percentage than what else goes on during a game.”

Of course, boos and expletives screamed at a television screen during the heat of a game is natural, but there is a fine line, Shaw says, and when that line is crossed is when it becomes an issue.

“People complaining, booing about calls, that’s part of the game, it’s OK,” Shaw said. “But to get personal, to target somebody’s business, his family, to make direct threats to that person, then we’ve lost focus on what’s important and what’s real in life and what’s just a game. That’s what worries me about a lot of aspects of today’s society.”

This current trend of online harassment towards referees can be explained by the online disinhibition effect, which suggests online users will show less inhibition on the web as opposed to a face-to-face conversation because of the lack of anonymity and authority. Shaw said the sports world has not been immune to the issue.

“People who don’t have to answer to anybody, they just think that they can see anything they want,” Shaw said. “Then we have people that read it and think it’s all true just because somebody said it.”

The effects of social media on athletics does not discriminate from the men’s game to the women’s. Sally Bell worked more than 30 years as a collegiate referee and now works as the coordinator of women’s basketball officials, overseeing six conferences including the OVC and the SEC. Bell said while the women’s game hasn’t reached the level that the men’s has, it is well on its way.

“In the women’s game, it’s following down the path of the men’s too,” Bell said. “Social media is just part of the game now. I don’t deal with it at all, social media. As a coordinator, that’s not something I do, and I try to discourage our people from entertaining that piece of it. They just need to leave it alone and not go there.”

As social media continues to grow, so too will its effects on the game. And while criticism has always been present, Bell says social media lifts it to an all-time high.

“People are criticized,” Bell said. “I mean, if you’re in the business of judging, you’re going to be criticized no matter what. If you’re in the business of playing, you’re going to be criticized no matter what. So that will never change, it’s just on a bigger stage right now.”