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The Fans of Fairness

Teresa Mathew/Daily
Teresa Mathew/Daily Buy this photo

By Haley Goldberg, Magazine Editor
Published April 9, 2013

Ted Hillary has attended 24 men’s basketball NCAA Tournaments, four Final Four games and over 2,500 basketball games throughout his life — averaging about 95 games per season. But at the age of 64, Hillary had a new experience with basketball this year: filling out a March Madness bracket.

“My wife and I just did it tonight. It was funny because we have no idea who’s going to win the games, so we just filled them out and laughed. I think my wife will probably do a lot better than I do, because she doesn’t study these teams and their tendencies when they play, so she just filled it out. And I’m thinking I’m the most knowledgeable person in the world, and she will do better than I will — I’ll tell you that.”

On March 14 — four days before I phoned Hillary at his home in Grand Rapids, Mich. — he officially retired from officiating Division I men’s basketball, a job he held for the past 38 years. Though Hillary is now released from the objective mindset of a basketball referee — which kept him from filling out a bracket — four days isn’t enough to change what has been ingrained in him.

“Can I ask who you predicted will win the National Championship?” I said gingerly, hopeful that I could crack the objectivity of a referee and learn his allegiance as a fan. But Hillary was quick to answer.

“No. Next year you can. I’ll tell you next year. I still just feel a little bit uncomfortable.”

It’s this deeply rooted devotion in officials to fairness and objectivity that perplexes many sports fans. The eyes and emotions of a Michigan fan are drawn to the players decked in the brightest tint of maize — the neon men who can lead us to victory. We situate the opposing team as a foe. And when our men in neon play well, the “WE ON” slogan screened on this season’s athletic apparel resonates through all Michigan fans with their eyes on the court — we all feel “on.”

Yet in this plot, where do the men in the white-and-black striped shirts fit? They’re neither protagonist nor antagonist on the court. They delve deeper into the action than all fans but possess no devotion to either team. They glide unnoticed along the sideline and around the key. That is, until the shrill sound of a whistle breaks up the dance we came to watch.

Sport scientists have long studied the relationship between fans and officials. Studies have revealed that sports fans are more inclined to direct their animosity towards the officials rather than the opposing team. Another study, transparently titled “Contrary to Popular Belief, Refs are People Too! Personality and Perceptions of Officials,” even used data to prove that “in general, referees are just like ‘average’ people,” according to researchers Balch & David. But the study revealed that spectators often hold the bias that officials are “highly neurotic, not very extraverted, not open to experience or imaginative, and not very agreeable or conscientious as a group.” In this theory, fans view officials as constantly flawed in their personality.

But what happens when we dive behind this perception bias? In each Biology 109 lecture in the Natural Science Auditorium this month, I sit behind another student illuminated by their laptop screen as they stream the NCAA Tournament, fixated on the dance of the players and hoping it matches the rhythm predicted in their brackets. I can hear their stifled insults against the officials as the screen rolls a slow-motion replay of a call against the team they selected to win. There’s a silent yell at the official. But really, what do they know about Pat Driscoll?

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Pat Driscoll’s voice cuts in and out, the howl of the wind filling the phone’s speaker as he tries to navigate the New York City streets. Though we speak over the phone, his determined stride is easily imaginable — Driscoll has run up and down the court alongside Division I men’s basketball players for the past 17 years. Four days before Selection Sunday, Driscoll is in the Big Apple for the Big East’s men’s basketball tournament, where he will be officiating the 7 p.m. game of St. John’s versus Villanova. He has officiated three Final Fours and worked the NCAA Tournament since 2000 — the stage on which many college athletes dream to play has been his for the past 12 years. But Driscoll’s own dream to officiate at the NCAA stage began at an early age.

Driscoll caught the fever of officiating from his father, a high-school basketball official. What captivated him was his father’s character when officiating.

“What I can remember about him was his demeanor on the floor, which seemed relatively calm. He wanted to make sure he was fair to both teams. It’s a game that he loved,” Driscoll said.

It’s those memories Driscoll recalls of a relationship ended early. His father died from a heart attack at the age of 34, when Driscoll was only 9.

Like his father, Driscoll also played high-school basketball. He began his officiating career early, becoming a certified high-school basketball official at 18. Driscoll became a Division I men’s basketball official in 1997. Now 45 years old, his Division I career can be tracked across 841 games in about 33 states, according to statsheet.com, a sports statistics website. Each season, he averages about 70 games.

But when Driscoll describes his life, he breaks it into two parts: professional and officiating. I found Driscoll’s contact information through his professional job as a local operations director in Syracuse, N.Y. for Say Yes to Education — a program that offers academic assistance to Syracuse students in the city where he resides. While many referees devote themselves fulltime to officiating, others, like Driscoll, view it as a part-time job.

“People are attorneys, they are police officers, firefighters — you name it. There is a wide spectrum of professions that also officiate college and high-school basketball.”

They’re also fathers. Driscoll’s three children — including his 17-year-old son, who just began officiating high-school games — and friends will often watch a broadcasted game that he’s officiating, focusing on Driscoll instead of the typical stars on the court.

I watched the last half of the Villanova versus St. John’s game with this intent. As the lens of the camera hugged tightly to the players, I caught a glimpse of a striped black-and-white shirt and a tall, dark-haired man at the bottom of the key in Madison Square Garden. This was Driscoll, and my first actual conscious sighting of a man I’m sure I’ve seen on television before — he’s officiated six Michigan basketball games this season. He was easy to pick out from the other two referees, being the only official with a cropped cut of brown hair rather than a tuft of gray hair upon his head. The score was 50-45, Villanova leading, with 7:14 left in the game. And the players of the two teams were fighting for points.

“The officials in the NFL would throw flags on these plays,” the announcers added after an especially intense collision between players at the St. John’s hoop. But in the pressure of the game, Driscoll kept his composure, possessing the calm demeanor he described of his own father. He lifted players up who had fallen in collisions, offering a hand. He weaved effortlessly across the court to better view the action, always careful to stay out of the plays but close enough to watch. It almost seemed as if a force existed between the players and the officials, each recognizing the other’s presence and circulating like planets in orbit avoiding collision. The clash came when Driscoll and his two fellow officials, poised with whistles in their mouths ready to make a call, did their job.

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“I can recall going to see him in a couple games and people yelling at him. When you’re that age and someone’s yelling at your dad, you’re just trying to figure out why,” Driscoll said.

When Driscoll thinks back on watching his dad as an official before he passed away, this is the first memory that sticks out in his mind — players, coaches and fans imparting their emotions, especially frustration, onto the officials. And Driscoll’s children have had the same experience when attending games their own father worked.

“I think sometimes when people may be bullying or yelling insults, it may get under (my children’s) skin a bit, but for the most part they certainly understand what I do and what I have to do,” Driscoll added.

In Ted Hillary’s 44 years as a referee, he faced the same challenges. His three sons and wife, Kathy, used to attend the games he officiated until it became too much.

“She had the children at the game, and they were asking their mother, ‘Why do these people hate Dad?’ She would come up with a million excuses and then decided I’m not taking these kids to anymore games,” Hillary said.

Hillary refuses to attend basketball games anymore due to the harsh vocal opinions of many fans.

“It’s real tough. I want to go up and slap them. They are just sometimes so ignorant, and then I think to myself: No wonder these people are yelling that out there, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

But the question remains: why do fans act this way towards officials? Hillary doesn’t know, and he mulls over this question more than any other in our conversation. His tone even suggests he hasn’t given much thought to why. But then he finds a reason.

“I think before the game starts, they expect everything to be perfect. And then I think they expect it to get better as the game goes along … I think this is what frustrates them: we don’t care who wins.”

It seems the clash of the officials and fans comes from what each group loyally admires: officials admire a fair and balanced basketball game, while most fans admire a specific team.

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1989: Hillary’s first chance to experience the thrill of officiating on the Final Four stage. As he took to the court in Seattle for the tipoff between University of Michigan and Illinois, he wasn’t nervous for his home-state team — a team he said he never liked, even though he resides in Grand Rapids, adding that he didn’t like any Division I teams. He was nervous for himself.

“There were 40,000 people in the dome, and I was standing there and my legs were shaking so badly, I couldn’t stop them from shaking,” Hillary said. “I walked up and down the sideline, hoping I would settle myself down, and I don’t think I ever did until we threw up the basketball and it was total concentration on the game.”

Based on the banners hanging in Crisler Center, it was Michigan’s last Final Four visit before this year. Michigan reached the stage in 1992 and 1993, but the University vacated the wins after the Fab Five controversy. It was that Final Four game in 1989 that led Michigan to the National Championship, and their first and only NCAA title win.

But to Hillary, it was his first of three Final Four visits.

“I never worked a National Championship game, but if you were an official, that is your goal: to go to the Final Four.”

In our conversation, he didn’t mention Michigan’s win or their progression to the National Championship, where they beat Seton Hall. It even took him a second to remember that Michigan played in the game. I searched for YouTube clips from the game, hoping to see Hillary on the sidelines. But the highlights didn’t include any close-ups of Hillary’s shaking legs. I saw then-forward Glen Rice and the short shorts Michigan wore in the pre-Fab Five days. I thought I spotted a younger version of today’s gray-haired, slightly balding Hillary standing under the hoop when Michigan took the lead with three minutes left in the game. But the editing of the highlights was focused on “Michigan storming back,” rather than Hillary making his Final Four debut. The game was tied at 81, with 28 seconds left. Michigan had the ball. Rumeal Robinson missed the 3-pointer, but Sean Higgins found the rebound and layup, solidifying the 83-81 win for Michigan and creating a memory for all Michigan fans. Even then, we were on.

But Hillary’s tone conveyed no devotion to Michigan. I asked if he felt hesitant officiating that game, since he resides in the state.

“I never had a team that I liked, and I think it’s because I went to a Division II school. I played basketball in college, but … I never really had any affiliation. When I got to work with Division I schools, I just never cared who won the game. But you have to live someplace, and it never bothered me one bit.”

Hillary worked as a high-school teacher as well as an official for the first 26 years of his referee career. Initially, he wanted to work as a basketball coach if a job opened up, but a friend encouraged him to become an official.

“What possessed me to forget about coaching and going into refereeing, I would say, was the excitement of the game,” Hillary said. “I didn’t have to take any losses either, that was kind of nice.”

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For John Adams, work with officials can come with a loss. Adams is the NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating and the voice of the officials during the tournament. “Fairness” is what he defends when speaking on behalf of the hand-selected officials working the NCAA Tournament, officials he deems as the 100 best referees in Division I.

As he drove across Ohio through an area he deemed “sparsely settled,” Adams called me on speakerphone with a NCAA spokesperson silent in the background, listening in from Indianapolis. Selection Sunday was only two days away.

“Have you ever booed a referee? You want your team to win, but remember fan is short for fanatic, it’s not short for ‘I want a fair game,’ ” Adams said, “fair” serving as his buzzword throughout our conversation.

Adams seeks to find the “fairest” and best officials for the NCAA Tournament, a challenge that required him and his team to evaluate over 500 officials at more than 400 games this season. During the regular season, officials work as independent contractors, signing contracts with primary conferences. Depending on the conference, officials can make anywhere from $900 to $3,000 per game. The “better referees,” as Adams refers to them, are in higher demand, working often and for higher rates. Adams broke down what makes a “better” official into three parts: get the plays right, communicate well with coaches and players and manage major moments — pivotal moments in the game when fair calls are crucial.

One-hundred officials are selected to work March Madness from a list of recommendations given by each conference and Adams’s team. On March 17, Selection Sunday this year, 68 college teams solidified their spot in the NCAA Tournament and so did 100 officials.

You could make a bracket just for the officials. The officials are evaluated by the NCAA during the tournament. If they perform well, they move on to the next round. This means the nine officials who work the Final Four games and the National Championship are the best of the best — an honorable spot Division I officials dream of holding, but also acknowledged as a risk to their careers.

“You’re on the only game being played that night, and now you’re on a call that determines the game, and you’re at risk of everyone watching that play and seeing you make a mistake. And it’s a big stage, so that’s risky,” Adams said, noting how an official in high demand — who could be working 70 to 80 games per season at a high rate — could lose their prestige with one poor call on the Final Four stage.

And when that call happens, Adams has to discuss it, recognizing if the officials were right or wrong after the game concludes. Adams has taken to the television for only about “four to five games” over the past three years of the tournament — 134 games — and he knows the media expects transparency from the officials.

“I think the officiating is fairly similar as it was 10 years ago, but the media scrutiny is incredibly heightened over just the shortest time of five years ago,” Adams said.

He regularly receives e-mails from fans during the tournament containing YouTube clips of games still in progress, asking how officials “missed” certain calls. Today’s advanced production of sporting events creates these clips as evidence for fans arguing a call. With often seven to eight camera angles at one NCAA Tournament game — and the ability for commentators to zoom and slow down the action to sloth speeds — the eyes of the officials aren’t the only eyes focused on examining the court.

“None of our officials are refereeing the games on the television in slow motion. They are doing it in the arena in real time, and that is really, really hard,” Adams said.

Take the National Championship matchup between Michigan and Louisville. A foul was called on sophomore guard Trey Burke with 5:10 left in the game. But was it a foul, or a clean block? Officials said foul, giving Louisville’s Peyton Siva free throws to stretch the lead to five. But according to Rodger Sherman with SB Nation, it was a block, prompting his article, “Final Four 2013: Did bad refereeing give Louisville its title?”. And other news outlets have joined suit, NBC News declaring “Poor officiating puts a black eye on a thrilling, memorable Final Four.” And it’s prompted many students to make the still image from the game — what they consider Burke carefully blocking and not fouling Siva at the hoop — their cover photo on Facebook in protest. Did that one call change the game? Adams has yet to comment publicly on the incident.

Earlier in this year’s tournament, Adams took to the CBS Sports stage to discuss a controversial charge call: the “hovering heel” case of Ohio State’s Aaron Craft in the third round matchup with Iowa State. The charge call on Iowa State turned the ball over to Ohio State for the final 3-pointer, beckoning the tears of Iowa State’s players. But did Craft truly avoid the restricted area arc? Fans and analysts were skeptical.

Dressed in a black blazer and red tie — his swoosh of gray hair neatly combed above his furrowed brow — Adams joins the conversation with CBS Sports commentators via satellite feed from Atlanta, a video I found later on the CBS Sports website. While Adams talks, the station shows the controversial call on the screen from three different angles and speeds: first in real time from a wide-angle shot of the court, next in slow motion from a camera under the hoop and a third still shot of Craft’s foot near the line during the block, a chicken-scratched yellow circle around his heel. In the interview, Adams manages to simultaneously defend the officials yet denounce the call the officials made.

Adams explains that if Craft’s heel was hovering, he was not in “legal guarding position,” and agrees it was a “miscall.”

Adams can argue for or against the call all he wants, but it doesn’t change the end result of the game.

“Is that a reviewable play, John?” a host questions.

“It is not,” Adams responds, and the video clip ends abruptly.

Adams said looking past the scrutiny, the instant reaction to calls made by officials does make the job rewarding.

“Most officials tell you, when they’re finished, they miss the games. It’s really thrilling to be out there refereeing a basketball game in front of a big crowd and … it’s instant reinforcement.”

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But 2,500 games later, Hillary sounds tired. Tired of the travel during the season, which he described as “brutal.” During the regular season, he could be on the road for 15 to 16 days in a row with only a one-day break in between trips, all which required his own planning.

“You get up in the morning at 6 a.m., get on a flight probably connecting someplace, and you go to another town, and you get your rental car and go to the hotel, and then you wait around for the game,” Hillary said of his work routine. “There’s quite a bit of loneliness out there, but you call back home, and you tell them everything’s OK and talk with them. That’s one of the tough parts of the game — they couldn’t pay you enough money for that part.”

Hillary also seems tired of the game of basketball itself, adding he will turn on games just to see if he knows the referees. If he knows them, he will only watch briefly.

“Certainly I’ll watch some of the NCAA Tournament, but to watch a whole game? That would probably take a lot out of me. I don’t know if I’d do that.”

In this year’s tournament, it was Driscoll’s turn to try and reach the Final Four stage for the fourth time. Driscoll made it to the Sweet Sixteen, officiating the Michigan State versus Duke game in Indianapolis. I tuned into the game to watch Driscoll.

As Driscoll races up and down the sidelines, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski watches closely. It’s a bigger stage, but his unwavering gait and quick pace mirrors his officiating in the Big East Tournament. Driscoll not only gets to the players first but often down to the hoop first as well. With the camera held tightly to the Blue Devils and Spartans, Driscoll is often lost in the frame of the shot, disappearing as the teams move down the court and reappearing at the bottom of the key in quick time. He’s never in focus.

In our interview, I asked Driscoll if he filled out a March Madness bracket, hoping to catch him in a moment of fandom. His answer was a quick “No.”

“When you become an official, you need to understand what you have signed up for and what you’re getting involved in, and with that comes walking that fine line and making sure you’re fair, and balanced and consistent,” he said.

I asked if it was difficult to surrender his fandom.

“It wasn’t difficult because this is what I chose to do.”

Any devout Michigan basketball fan has seen Driscoll six times this season. You’ve probably yelled at him on your screen, maybe including expletives. And you’ve probably questioned his judgment, or given him praise, for calling traveling on the opponent. But you’ve seen him, whether you recognize it or not.


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