Do we need referees? -

Do we need referees?

The Alex Burrows affair brings up a controversial question


The idea of alternative sports officiating began to seem appealing during the 2007 Tim Donaghy scandal—the NBA ref who was found to be fixing games as part of a deal with the Mob. And now, the recent Alex Burrows affair has brought the idea round again.

Burrows was fined by the NHL the other day for speaking out against NHL referee Stéphane Auger. Auger, as the story goes, allegedly penalized the Canucks winger late in the third period of a tight, tied game with the Predators last Monday as retribution for an incident earlier in the season in which Burrows took a dive (that was mistakenly called a penalty by Auger, who was also refing that game).

Burrows is right: Auger made the wrong call against him, at a critical moment in the game. And the two were seen chatting before the game (wherein Burrows claims Auger promised to “get him back” for embarrassing him earlier in the season).

No doubt this happens regularly—and not just in the NHL, but all professional sports. Refs hate having their authority questioned—and you have to sympathize to a certain extant with their soft-shelliness, they have the most thankless job in sports—and so they tend to bite back at anyone who challenges them. But refs aren’t dictators and this behaviour seriously threatens sports, for both athletes and fans.

Simple solution: get rid of them.

Tennis has already eliminated the potential biases and mistakes of referees, to a certain extent, by installing a computer system that players can use, during the course of a match, to challenge a human-made call. The machines are right all the time; humans not so much—in every match I’ve seen since the system was installed, at least one ref’s (sorry, umpire’s) call has been overruled by a computer that sees the lines of the court—and whether the ball fell within or without them—far clearer.

So it can be done. Though it’ll be harder in team sports. Computers would have a harder time discerning real infractions of holding and tripping rules than an actual human on the field of play.

So how about a counter-solution? Keep the refs, but take them off the field/rink/court. The NHL already employs officials who sit up in a booth high above the ice—they’re there to review disputed goals, but surely also know the outside-the-crease rules of the game. And they have a better view of the ice surface than the four refs who actually skate on it with the players—plus the benefit of slow-motion TV sets to review the game. Why not officiate the entire game from up there?

This works for at least two reasons: first, it gets rid of the bias problem—the players don’t need to know who’s making the call from the booth, and any potential for Burrows-Auger-style personal wars could be quelled. As an added bonus, eliminating four extra skaters from the surface would open up the game – something fans have been calling for forever.

If you can’t get rid of refs, they ought to be as unobtrusive as possible.


Do we need referees?

  1. Yeah!! Eliminate the refs and the linesmen, that way, if there's a big fight or a brawl then no one is there to control it!! Genius idea!!

    • Maybe there should be no fighting. Ever thought of that "genius". And dont tell me they need it or its part of the game because that arguement is has no substance. For example. In pro football you have big guys in an intense situation and they dont need the fighting to protect the players. You know why ; because the punishment for such action is enough of a deterent to keep it from happening. All fighting does is slow the game down!!!!!!!!

      • "Ever thought of that "genius"."

        sure. now pls just point to where it was proposed in the original idea that Max was critiquing.

  2. your a Joke! why didn't we have robots as well… having human emotion is the core reason why sports is so entertaining!

    • Good point Dickie. I think that not having the officials in the game is an essential part of the excitement. But I also believe for the sake of the game and the fans that watch that the officiating needs to be cleaned up. After all an infraction is an infraction is an infraction no matter when in the game it happens. Call every penalty and the game will once again become as exciting as it once was.

  3. Let's get rid of shitty columnists instead

  4. Have you thought of the problem of training these officials in the lower levels before they enter the NHL? Since the same funding, equipment, and arenas don't exist at the lower levels you would still require ref's on ice. Once they moved up to the NHL you would then be requiring them to change almost every aspect of how they have called games for the past X years, essentially learning both the finite details of how to call an NHL game vs. say WHL (which already exists) as well as how to call a game from a different angle, at a much different distance.

    I think the idea is a good one, but unfortunately one that is decades ahead of its time.

  5. This article seems to have been written by someone who's only encounter with ice is in a drink. Even a highly experienced ref would have a difficult time calling a game from any remote distance.

  6. Well, the good news is I can stop looking for the worst thought out idea of the day. Congratulations, you failed to recognize a lot of the other work referees and linesman perform in games, like dropping the puck and separating scuffles.

  7. wow. what next? glowing pucks?

  8. Terrible…simplye terrible…Do you even watch hockey…? Tennis…? Seriously…? You can't compare the two sports. What happened…? Did you forget about the deadline for this article and just pump something out last second…? Worst part is your article got posted on googles main news page and millions of people will read your nonsence. If you are going to write for a Canadian magazine I would suggest at least watching a hockey game before writing about it to Canadians. I bet next article you will be asking whether we really need alcohol in our beer.

    • Yes, Yoni does apparently watch hockey. For a taste of this hockey-lover's enlightened commentary, have a peek at:

      Yoni Goldstein on why he enjoyed watching Jonathan Roy trounce Bobby Nadeau

      … over at Full Comment.

  9. just an edit to my last comment. Having the officials in the game is essential.

  10. Wow. Now that wasn't very well thought out.

  11. I do not believe eliminating referees is a really well thought out idea. But we do need to do something about the bad officiating that is plaguing the NHL. Maybe implement an NFL type system where coach can challenge a call made by a ref. Like challenging a penalty call in which case it would go up stairs and after reviewing it determine if is in fact a penalty. Basically a coach would have 2 challenges per game for plays that video review does not usually come into play. Just a thought of a system that might work better then the current system. Its easy for the refs to say my mistake I am only human but my call still stands. I think teams should have a chance to challenges those plays. There has been many games decided by bad officiating this years. This problem ruins the integrity of the games especially in today's NHL where every single point is so important. A ref's bad call can be the difference between a team getting into the playoffs or missing them.

  12. I've been trying to convince my friends of this idea for years now! Brilliant idea. Get a team of refs up there, keeping a sharp eye on the ice, and calling fouls from afar.
    Then, in addition, have a team of "hired goons" sitting rinkside, ready to spill over the boards and forcefully break up fights either as they happen or as they wind down (depending on how the league deals with fighting, long-term).
    THis makes more room on the ice, and helps give the refs a better view. Heck, you could even have a team of refs making instantaneous votes up top with some keyboard in front of them, majority rules (ie, if 3 of the 5 refs up there think it wasn't a call, it won't get called!)

  13. Why would you think that a ref working anonymously from above would be less biased than one on the ice? Did anonymous judging help eliminate bias in figure skating? Are anonymous commentors on the internet more polite or less polite? I think the fear of public shaming serves a balancing force keeping the referees personal biases under control.

  14. I am for it. have 1 ref on the ice still for obvious reasons. Puck drop, calling infractions that would be hard to see due to scrums. Voting system for penalties sounds like the way. This culture of refs as a third team has to go. They will win every time and is making our national sport look bush if not corrupt. Along with bettman they are destroying the NHL and making it look derived. Look at the teams who have won the cups lately. All poor american teams since TB won it. Ask yourself who would the NHL want to win the cup and then look at the most recent "Champions". Mostly desperate floundering teams. Tampa Bay. Carolina. Anaheim. Pittsburgh. How convenient for bettman I bet his next pick is phoenix.

  15. who ever wrote this garbage should go back to ping-pong or write about something they know even a little bit about.

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    Ten years ago, as a compulsive-gamblers counselor, I went to the National Basketball Association office in Manhattan and met with league officials, players and union officials, concerned about players' gambling. I was told, "We have a problem, and we're trying to find out how bad the problem is" Officials asked me to keep my calendar open for the spring of the following year and said to me that they hoped that I might address every team in the league.

    When I hadn't heard from the NBA, I called and asked, "When do we start?" The talked were cancelled, and the response I got was this: "They said that the higher-ups didn't want the media to find out"

  17. Eliminating officials is a tad extreme and not a very good solution. Just have the boys in the booth look at questionable calls. They can over rule the on ice official for something as blatant as Augs' call. BTW Auger is a complete jackass and sensitive primadonna.

  18. …might as well play blindfolded

  19. The world is advancing. We have latest technology in our hand, so why we aren't using them. If the technology can be implemented properly there will be no controversy. The game will be more entertaining then.

  20. Great Article Yoni. Let me give you an example of a sport like ultimate frisbee. This sport has no official and referee but could live up to the game with honesty and good spirit. So if you really are a lover of sports, you will definitely go with the good flow of the game without any officials.