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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.


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