Zebra Stripers: Saluting The Game's Finest


They’ve got the Toughest Job in Pro Sports and the Least Respect

They’ve got the Toughest Job in Pro Sports and the Least Respect

Officials, umps and referees receive spittle flying verbal smackdowns every time they stick their whistles in their mouth. As enforcers of “the rules” they are the bane of coaches, players, and fans alike and the two parties are bound to butt heads. The main bone of contention: unlike everybody else in the stadium or arena, the men and women in zebra stripes don’t give a damn which side wins. This of course is also a glowing testament to the integrity of the profession. Refs are at their best when they’re invisible, blending into the action like a chameleon on a stakeout. Here we raise a glass to these unsung athletic adjudicators who maintain the righteousness of the game.


Since the NHL rule changes were instituted last year, referees have had to be more vigilant than ever before. In the past when the score was 3-3 with one-minute left to play in the third period and a player got hooked, if a ref saw the infraction but deemed it minor they’d have the discretion to let it slide. But decision making based on timeliness is all in the past and now the rules are the rules. Always. Yes, even if it’s overtime in the deciding game of the Stanley Cup finals.

Two referees stalk the ice in each game, each presiding over half of the 200 by 85 foot ice surface. That doesn’t mean they can take their eye off the puck or take a breather for a second if play is not in their end because if one referee gets blocked out, that extra set of eyes will be required to make the call. If they had an NHL referee skills competition, backward skating races would definitely be on the docket because going lateral fast to keep up with the action is integral to the job. Avoiding interference with the play and flying rubber bullets is another: “We as officials are out on the ice and the puck travels 120 miles per hour and it's flying everywhere—it goes off the glass, banks off boards, and deflects off goal posts and sticks. So getting out of harm’s way and still being in the proper place to make call is a unique skill,” explains NHL referee Kevin Pollock.


NBA officials don’t tend to see eye-to-eye with the players they’re presiding over. In many cases if there’s a confrontation over a call they find themselves talking face to six-pack. Establishing their authority while physically keeping up with athletic thoroughbreds like Chris Bosh and LeBron James certainly keeps the hardcourt police on their toes. This could be why it takes 10-14 years overall experience before a referee will be considered for a position as an NBA official. The role of the three referees that run up and down the court for 48 minutes is not just to send guys to the foul line but to monitor the pulse of hoops action and keep players in line before they break the rules—draw the line without having to stop the play.
Oh, and to put that basketball rumour to rest that there are two sets of rules, one for rookies and one for veterans: "It's not true that rookies don't get the calls, and that you start getting calls in your second year. It's in your third year in the league that you start getting the calls," once joked NBA veteran referee Dick Bavetta who has over 2100 games under his belt.


In pro and college football, seven referees patrol the gridiron. The head referee is the one wearing a white ball cap while the rest (Head Linesman, Line Judge, Umpire, Back Judge, Side Judge, and Field Judge) are black hatters. While as a fan you may only spot the head referee when he turns on his mic to call a foul, they’re in the thick of the action on every down. Before each play, the referee positions himself behind the team on offense. If it’s a passing play, he’ll hone in on the quarterback and the linebackers gunning for him so he’ll have a prime sightline to distinguish a fumble from an incomplete pass and on running plays he’ll key in on the QB and the running back and remain with them till the play is over.

“The hallmark of good officiating is for officials to know what not to call. The fouls jump out at you as an official and you are certain when they should be called. Whenever there is any doubt regarding a play, the call should not be made. Officials are so hard on themselves. When they make a mistake, nobody feels worse than they do,”-Jerry Markbreit, the only ref to preside over four Super Bowls.

This Article first ran in the November issue of Chill Magazine

Copyright © Mike Dojc 2006

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