LAS VEGAS — The knowing nods come as soon as the name John Higgins is mentioned to veteran college basketball officials. It could happen to any of us, they say, the way things are going.
Higgins is one of the top referees in the sport. But it was during a taut NCAA Tournament matchup in 2017 that he trended on Twitter and quickly became the target of harassment by frustrated Kentucky fans certain that Higgins was the reason that the Wildcats had lost a quarterfinal game against North Carolina.
Higgins and his family received death threats, and his roofing-and-siding business received thousands of harassing phone calls (mostly from Kentucky area codes) and an onslaught of negative reviews, according to a lawsuit that Higgins later filed against a radio station he accused of fanning the discord.
“While a basketball game is only played between two teams, there are three major groups of players at each game: the winning team, the losing team, and, increasingly visible with instant-replay on every television broadcast, the referees,” reads the lawsuit, still working its way through U.S. District Court.
As the NCAA men’s basketball tournament begins this week, the only team certain to reach the Final Four wears black-and-white striped jerseys with no numbers. It is likely that some referees will be accused of incompetence. Others can expect to be blamed for game outcomes somewhere along the way.
“We’re under the highest amount of scrutiny we’ve ever been under,” said Mike Reed, a Division I official since 1994 now entering his 13th NCAA Tournament.
It is not just college basketball. Officials have become leading characters in the passion play of American sports: an overlooked pass-interference hubbub in the recent NFL playoffs; the overturned foul after Kevin Durant smashed into LeBron James in last year’s NBA Finals; or disputes about home runs in MLB’s playoffs.
In tennis, the 2018 U.S. Open may be remembered for Serena Williams’ reactions to officiating calls in the women’s final as much as for the play of the winner, Naomi Osaka. Even umpires at last year’s Little League World Series were not immune.
Barry Mano, a former college basketball official who founded Referee magazine in 1975 and the National Association of Sports Officials in 1980, sees the magnifying glass as a mirror to society.
“Now officiating is public and, in some ways, a petri dish in which the culture of sports and our larger culture gets agitated, stirred together,” he wrote in the latest issue of Referee.
In few places do officials work in such a high-speed pressure cooker like that of a college basketball arena. Unlike their NBA counterparts, highly paid coaches are the faces of the college game and the main mouthpieces to the referees, and allegiant fans follow their lead. Lightning-quick decisions are untangled by slow-motion replays on screens in the arena and on television for those watching at home. Victories can mean big financial rewards for coaches and colleges. Social media spreads angst in real time.
“The speed of information is causing referees to be more visible,” said J.D. Collins, the NCAA’s national coordinator of men’s basketball officials. “Our best hope is to have us be invisible, do our job and go home. But I’m afraid we are no longer in that environment.”
In 2017, 57 percent of officials of all sports at all levels said that sportsmanship was getting worse (16 percent said it was getting better), according to a survey by the sports officials’ association of more than 17,000 officials. The numbers were grimmer in basketball, in which 65 percent said sportsmanship was declining.
“Sports is simply life with the volume turned up,” Mano said in an interview. “Why should we be surprised by this? We’re louder; we’re brasher. We don’t want to be told no. When we don’t like a decision, we look for another opinion. That’s how we got replay.”
Yet even as the light on officiating gets harsher, an analysis of all NCAA Tournament games last year found that officials made the right call 94.75 percent of the time when they blew their whistles, Collins said. No calls, where no whistle was blown on close plays, were correct about 90 percent of the time, he added.
To watch and listen to the exasperated reactions from coaches and fans, however, the proportion of blown calls feels more like 50-50.
“The expectation is that you start out perfect,” said Reed, the NCAA Tournament referee, “and you get better from there.”
This season, the NCAA put a renewed focus on bench decorum, hoping to clamp down on the boorish behavior of coaches — who might set an example for fans. Coaches are restricted to a short stretch of sideline where they often pace impatiently, like caged cats, while barking incessantly, like neighborhood dogs.
The emphasis has not prevented several noteworthy episodes in recent weeks, as when Mississippi coach Kermit Davis shed his coat and threw it down in disgust after a call late in a game, leading fans to throw garbage on the court. (Last week, Davis was named the Southeastern Conference’s coach of the year.) The same night, East Carolina coach Joe Dooley was ejected with two technicals against Houston. One of his players followed by getting thrown out, too, as was one of the fans throwing garbage toward the court.
At Iowa last month, coach Fran McCaffery was suspended by his university for two games for berating an official in a hallway after a loss.
At the Pac-12 Conference tournament in Las Vegas, Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak got a technical Friday when he swatted a water cup on press row. A few blocks away at the Mountain West Conference tournament, New Mexico coach Paul Weir received a momentum-shifting technical when he rushed down the sideline after a questionable call.
Moments later, fans filled the arena with a chant: “You suck, ref!”
“I don’t know the exact rule on that — maybe he’s right,” Weir said. “I was just voicing my displeasure on a play. I think coaches get that way a lot.”
The NCAA, which said it had not tracked the number of technicals called this season compared with previous years, tried to set a consistent standard heading into the national tournament.
“Part of the responsibility of a coach is to let an official know when we either miss a call or they think we miss a call,” Collins said. “But based on the 90-to-95 percent figure, it isn’t every call.”
There are 851 Division I men’s basketball officials, each of them an independent contractor working for a handful of regional coalitions. They make roughly $1,350 to $3,800 per game, depending on their experience and the matchup. (Kentucky’s John Calipari, the highest-paid coach in college basketball, made about $281,000 per game this season, if his nearly $9.3 million annual salary is divided by the 33 games Kentucky has played.) There are no benefits, and officials are generally not reimbursed for travel or other costs. While most referees do it as a part-time job from late fall to early spring, a few dozen officiate as their primary income, stringing together several games each week, maybe 80 or more games a season.
And just as teams hope to be picked for the 68-team NCAA Tournament, officials hoped to be among the 100 selected to work the games. The best advance to the next round.
“All of us want to go to the Final Four,” said Tony Padilla, a longtime official who made it there in 2016 and 2017. “It’s funny, because then you’re under more scrutiny and under the microscope more than any time. It’s kind of weird, right?”
They will go through more ups and downs than any team. They will draw the ire of nearly everyone watching. But referees will be there at the end, the tournament’s only sure bet.
“We don’t have any home games, and we don’t have a student section cheering for us,” said Randy McCall, a Division I referee since 1992 who regularly works deep into the tournament. “It can be a grind, especially late in the year. But I chose this. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The next night, McCall officiated a Pac-12 semifinal game between Arizona State and Oregon. Both teams have coaches who pace and bark. When they stand still they merely look perplexed or agitated.
The game was a testy one, headed to overtime, between teams desperate to reach the NCAA Tournament. In the second half, McCall called a foul on an Arizona State player who blocked a shot. The Sun Devils’ coach, Bobby Hurley, was enraged. Replays on the enormous video board sent Hurley into a frenzy. Fans howled at the officials.
A night earlier, as cheers from a nearby game swirled into a dim arena hallway, McCall had discussed the occasional blown call, and the outrage that was sure to follow one.
“The only times I really remember when I look back over my career are the mistakes I made — the mistakes that were critical mistakes, at critical times of a game, that maybe changed the outcome,” McCall said. “And I don’t need to read anything on social media to know, believe me.”