Saturday, March 08, 2008

Obama, Clinton, and "Working The Refs"

I had CNN on in the background while I worked a little bit today, and was more than a little surprised to hear Barack Obama talk about officiating. It's the first big-time political reference to refs since John Roberts' nomination hearings nearly three years ago.

His thesis: Clinton's resurgence in Texas and Ohio this week was in part due to her campaign's complaints about what they saw as pro-Obama media coverage (best exemplified by a Saturday Night Live sketch referenced by Clinton). The media, not wanting to appear biased, responded to these allegations by going harder on Obama and softer on Clinton.

Obama, who played high school varsity basketball for the Punahou School in Hawaii, decided the best way to communicate this was through an officiating metaphor.

The kitchen sink strategy I'm sure had some impact. Particularly when many of you in the press corps felt that you had been too hard on her and too soft on me. Complaining about the refs apparently worked a little bit this week, so in addition to my call to ["Saturday Night Live" executive producer] Loren Michaels, hopefully people feel like everything's evened out and we can start covering the campaign properly.

It won't impact my vote, but I hate anything that perpetuates the myth of the makeup call. The two phrases "Complaining about the refs apparently worked" and "everything's evened out"...well, that's as troublesome to me as the Subway ad was.

I love when people insist they've seen a "makeup call" in an NBA game. I always tell them that every call in every game is reviewed by evaluators, and those evaluations could result in playoff assignments (on one end) or getting fired (on the other). To suggest a makeup call is to suggest that an official would put his or her career on the line by intentionally blowing a call because they feel bad for some poor millionaire player. That's ridiculous on its face.

At the lower levels, I suppose there are officials who can be"worked" by a coach. Of course, it can also work the opposite: an unscrupulous official who wants to show he/she cannot be impacted by a coach might actually call more against the whiner's team. This is, of course, just as morally wrong as to be successfully "worked," since what we all want is to get every call right.

So I guess the one thing that I like about Obama's comment is that it suggests that "working the refs" is out of the ordinary, as the phrase "apparently worked a little this week" indicates that successful "working" is rare and minor.

In any event, I'm more interested in whether the metaphor of press during a campaign=refs during a game holds any water.

It's not just Obama's line; I can find this metaphor in use as far back as this magazine article from a few weeks ago about the Chelsea Clinton "pimping" flap. The author says that "It's normal for campaigns, like athletes, to "work the refs" by protesting bad calls over-energetically."

I can see a lot of similarities between the campaign press and officials. Both are supposed to be impartial observers. Both are supposed to call it like they see it. Neither are supposed to care who wins.

I haven't been following press coverage of the campaign closely enough to determine whether or not they've been partial to Obama (or to Clinton since she started complaining). But I historically have felt dubious about most accusations of partiality in the popular press. I've always felt like, since both sides shout that they have been wronged, the press can't possibly be biased. I feel the same way when I ref a game. If both sides are yelling at me, I might be having a good game (or maybe a bad one), but I'm sure as hell not biased.

So I guess I buy this metaphor. I just wish it didn't add to the myth of the makeup call.


At 6:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A successful working of the refs does not necessarily imply a makeup call. Say a linebacker complains to a ref that an offensive lineman keeps grabbing his jersey. After that, the ref knows what to look for. He can call a penalty with total integrity, but the linebacker also got what he wanted.

At 8:47 PM, Blogger BloggingRef said...

Perhaps, but the metaphor doesn't hold up then. The linebacker isn't asking the ref to police himself, but the opponent. I think Clinton and her people are asking the media to police itself.

In any event, a coach or player who politely comes to me and says "Could you watch for #33 pushing off, please?" isn't "working" me. "Working," I think, has longer-term, more nebulous, more sinister goals.


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