Fairness, sought by a public increasingly polarized and uncivil from behind digital screens, is guarded by the few who volunteer to be neutral and objective amid competition and conflict.
But what happens to these arbiters — these referees — when the unchanging fallibility of humanity is put in stark relief against the emergence of powerful tools like instant replay and artificial intelligence?
Could a robot do a better, fairer job of calling a baseball game from behind home plate?
“I don’t think so, but I don’t know that. With the technology they have today, I don’t know if that’s true,” Jim Moylan, an umpire and referee of 41 years, said at Thursday night’s season opener of the Keene Swamp Bats at Alumni Field.
American sports may not be there just yet, but the rise of instant replay and ever-more competitive youth sports worries longtime umpires like Rick Zecha, a Keene resident who is regarded as one of the top officials in the Granite State.
Just go to any Little League game, Zecha noted.
Or consult Thursday night’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues. Fans in TD Garden began throwing things onto the ice upon seeing a replay of Blues center Tyler Bozak hauling down Bruins winger Noel Acciari before St. Louis scored the game-winning goal.
After Adam Silver became commissioner of the NBA, a $15 million instant replay center was built in New Jersey, with referees and players getting comprehensive reports after each game — not only of overturned calls, but of every missed call from the refs.
The World Cup and other top-level soccer competitions now use a Video Assistant Referee, through which an automated system can determine offside plays and whether the ball crossed the goal line.
Even Major League Baseball, the last of America’s big four sports to implement video replay, saw its average game length exceed three hours since calls went to the booth back in 2008.
“I think at some point,” Zecha, 62, said, “they’re gonna have to draw the line and say, ‘How much technology do we really want in this game?’ ”
Hanging up the whistle
Where cameras may be lacking at local ball parks, parents are often more than willing to pick up the slack and challenge calls going against their kids’ team.
“What happens today — there are some parents that are out of line today. That didn’t seem like that when I was growing up,” Moylan, 69, of Keene said. “There’s more at stake today. The baseball is a lot better than it was then. ... Guys can get scholarships now. The parents ... I don’t know if they think that if they scream and yell, they’re gonna change the umpire’s decision on a play. ’Cause they’re really not gonna.”
The hostility of parents has led to a decline in interest for umpires and referees in the Monadnock Region, according to Zecha and Moylan.
Both agree that umpires get far more grief at the youth level than in college games or summer ball, where players on teams like the Swamp Bats — which heard 12 of their current and former players’ names called in this past week’s Major League Baseball Draft — attempt to stand out to pro scouts.
With fewer parents in the crowd and pro clubs scrutinizing the character and behavior of the players — along with the threat of suspension by the league — outbursts against the officials tend to be tamped down, according to the longtime local umpires.
Yet by the time the going gets easier, Moylan and Zecha note, the pipeline of aspiring umpires has been decimated by the harassment sustained at the lower tiers.
“At the lower levels, they take some grief from the parents. ... It sometimes can impact whether (the umpires) want to stay in it,” Zecha said.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 80 percent of high school referees across sports now quit before their third year, leading to the launch of a national recruitment push in 2017.
More severe incidents of accosting referees have gotten so bad that the National Association of Sports Officials has backed legislation in at least 20 states to increase punishment for offenders.
And while cuts to scholastic sports funding are a factor, according to a recent Ohio University study, 85 percent of referees say they would quit if the current climate of harassment gets worse.
In the Monadnock Region, Zecha noted, high school players usually face harsh consequences from administrators if they yap at officials, but he called the overall trend concerning nevertheless.
“I think the parents have higher expectations, and they sometimes don’t understand the level that the kids are playing at,” he said. “It’s really about development, you know, than it is necessarily about winning and losing and becoming that superstar, isn’t it?
“And I think they then take it out on officials, and sometimes there’s no recourse at that point.”
When the ‘game’ requires a gavel
The Granite State’s famously spirited town meetings have referees of their own.
Moderators like L. Phillips Runyon III of Peterborough and Marc Tieger of Jaffrey are annually tasked with maintaining order and civility at these low-tech exercises of “pure democracy.”
“It’s a lot like being a judge, except that you don’t have to make a decision,” quipped Runyon, who was a New Hampshire circuit court judge from 1990 to 2017. “You basically are like a referee, in the sense that you’re listening and trying to give everybody their day in court, if you will, so that everybody gets their chance to speak, and it’s done in an orderly fashion, and it’s kept on the — sort of on the merits of the issue, rather than in any kind of a personal attack on another person.”
Unlike the umpires, the pair of moderators have not seen the same spike of discourteousness.
Despite widely discussed concerns of increasing polarization in national politics, they have seen the center of civility hold in the gymnasium of Jaffrey’s Conant High School and in the upper hall of the Peterborough Town House.
Rarely have they had to throw anyone out.
“We talk about civility, we talk about listening to other people and things like that,” Tieger said, “and very seldom, very seldom do things get out of hand.”
Since first running for moderator in 1990, he said he has experienced ebbs and flows in the fervor of voters.
When big-item expenses and other property tax heavy items are on the warrant, people turn out in droves and have no shortage of hot takes.
“Anything controversial, you know, if it’s a money issue, if it’s big expenses for a new building,” Tieger said. “ ... If you’re beating your bonnet, you’re gonna go to the meeting, and you’re gonna be heard.”
But he added that he has also seen a decline in turnout that worries him.
“The question of attendance is alive and well unfortunately, at both traditional town meetings and SB2 [ballot voting],” he said. “If you say ‘apathy,’ it’s too broad a word. ... If it does not affect one directly, then people just do not have the degree of interest to attend.”
A calling ... to make the call
Despite the modern challenges and age-old quandaries posed to these neutral arbiters, they maintain strong motivations to hold onto their posts.
“I’m convinced that officiating is a form of competing,” Zecha said. “You’ve got a front-row seat in the game, the game of sports that you may have played and loved all your life and watched, and there you are out there. The competition is like an athlete, only the competition for an official is to get every call right.”
Both pairs of umpires and moderators also agreed there are benefits to officiating off the field and outside of town meeting, such as experience in conflict resolution techniques.
“The old adage is that if someone else raises their voice, yours goes down,” Zecha said. “You use that in all aspects of life. That’s the best way to defuse a conflict. So you deal with conflict resolution; you try to see good outcomes.”
And perhaps the ultimate goal of any referee, he said, is to be so good you’re invisible.
“I think every official wants to come off the field saying, ‘I was unnoticed. The players or kids decided the game,’ and that’s the ultimate, and you know you did it right.”
Runyon and Tieger find value in the public service component of being moderators, but were also both asked to do the job because of their professional skills — Runyon as an estate attorney and former judge and Tieger as a Realtor.
But could a robot do it better?
“Only if [the robot] was nuts enough to do it,” Tieger quipped. “No, I don’t think so. It’s an eyeball-to-eyeball contact. It’s very important in any relationship, you know, town meeting or a marriage or a business or friends or whatever it is — the artificial intelligence doesn’t do it for me.”
This story has been amended to correct the number of former Swamp Bats selected in the 2019 MLB draft.