The Zebra: a Species in Danger

Times Staff Writer

Some kids in a suburb east of San Diego would like to spend their autumn afternoons playing peewee football.

Squint your eyes and you can picture it: Helmets bobbling atop small bodies, spindly legs chasing after the ball, parents in lawn chairs on the sideline.

They live half an hour from Qualcomm Stadium, where the Oakland Raiders face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII today, but really it's light years from the NFL.

So maybe those kids don't realize how the big game might affect them.

The community of Rancho San Diego has enough young players to fill five or so teams and enough parents to serve as coaches. The problem is, they want to join the San Diego Youth Football Conference, which is already scrambling to provide officials for its games.

"It's the same thing across California and Arizona," says Rikki Kinsfather, who volunteers as conference commissioner. "There's a shortage of refs."

No one wants the job, not even for pay. No one wants the hassle or abuse.

And that is where the NFL comes in. That is why Kinsfather and other youth football volunteers are squeamish about an estimated 800 million fans watching the Super Bowl.

They worry about what those people might see.

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Go back to the first guy who stood up in the bleachers and hollered: "Kill the ump."

Fans identify with players and coaches. They dream of throwing touchdown passes or fancy themselves as strategists. It isn't like that with officials.

Who fantasizes about blowing a whistle and setting the ball down for the next play?

The guys in stripes carry an added burden of jurisprudence. "Players and coaches make mistakes," says Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics. "But when someone who has authority makes a mistake ... it's an injustice."

It affronts our sense of right and wrong, touching a nerve that runs deep in our national psyche.

"Americans, we're an ornery group," says Eric Newhall, a professor of American studies at Occidental College. "Our gut-level instinct is to rebel against authority."

Puritans defied the Church of England, settling in a new land. Revolutionists fought taxation. This historic distrust of power has only intensified since World War II, scholars say.

Vietnam, Watergate and Enron. Judges, police and doctors. No one is to be trusted.

Now flash to a botched call at the end of the New York Giant-San Francisco 49er playoff game three weeks ago. Or the disputed penalty that gave the Tennessee Titans another chance for a winning field goal against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Toss in a college controversy -- pass interference in overtime at the Fiesta Bowl -- and you have a full-fledged nightmare.

Is it any wonder Kinsfather cannot find officials for her youth games?

"Would you look at that and say you want to become a football referee?" asks Barry Mano, president of the National Assn. of Sports Officials. "That's the trickle-down effect. No one wants to subject themselves."

Before you claim that yelling at officials is your patriotic duty, Newhall suggests an important distinction is being overlooked: The difference between legitimate authority and figures who abuse power.

Americans have traditionally respected the former, reserving their scorn for the latter.

"I believe most referees are fair-minded, they are legitimate," Newhall says. "But I think some Americans are confusing the two types."

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Twenty-two hundred.

That is how many judgment situations an NFL official faces during an average game.

Twenty-two hundred flickers, heartbeats, blinks of an eye that could mean the difference between a catch or a drop, a sack or a holding call, a touchdown or a fumble at the goal line.

Red Cashion, a retired referee, says NFL crews get it right more than 98% of the time. He wants to know how many businessmen operate at that level of efficiency.

Or quarterbacks. Or coaches.

"The very best basketball players in the world shoot 80% from the free-throw line," Josephson says. "Why would we expect a referee to have a higher percentage when he's running, when he doesn't always have the right angle?"

Thus the other 2%, what officials call "unintentional human error." Cashion muses: "You've got to be lucky. You hope that when you make a bad call, it doesn't determine the winner of a game. You sure hope it doesn't determine the winner of a playoff game."

Somewhere along the line -- no one is quite sure -- fans forgot that officiating mistakes are part of the game.

Technology has played a role. Cashion recalls that when he arrived in the NFL, officials reviewed their games on 16-millimeter, black-and-white film shot from a single camera location.

"If you could read the numbers on the players' jerseys," he says, "you had yourself a real good film."

Now fans see instant replays on the stadium scoreboard and television viewers get half a dozen angles in slow motion. Each disputed play is subject to review.

Officials seem to have mixed emotions about the replay booth. It watches over their shoulders but also helps them get things right.

Of greater concern is the reaction to mistakes, what Josephson classifies as a movement toward "vituperation and anger and attack."

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Cleveland Brown fans rain hundreds of beer bottles onto the turf, officials scurrying for cover, after a last-minute call is overturned.

Steeler Coach Bill Cowher chases a referee across the field after his team's playoff loss, then berates him in a news conference.

"We have this kind of browbeating and a feeding frenzy in the media," Mano says. "You start to feel like you're under siege."

At Pop Warner headquarters in Langhorne, Pa., Executive Director Jon Butler says the situation can be equally woeful in youth football -- enraged parents, disrespectful kids -- and has contributed to the nationwide shortage of officials.

"It's Romans and gladiators," he says. "I don't know how people have gotten it into their heads that this kind of behavior is acceptable."

The guy hollering "Kill the ump?" Now he means it.

"In the old days, you simply walked off the court," says Mano, who officiated college basketball games before joining the officials' association. "Today, you run. You're always concerned that you are going to be confronted."

It's not just football. Portland Trail Blazer forward Rasheed Wallace recently threatened an NBA official outside the team's arena.

And it's not just fans in the United States. Reports of severe attacks have become almost commonplace in international soccer.

Experts warn that Americans are moving in that direction.

At Baylor University, marketing professor Kirk Wakefield studies behavior in stadiums and has detected a rise in what he calls "dysfunctional fans." His surveys identify 10% of spectators who agree with the statement: "Someday I believe my actions at the ballpark are likely to get me escorted out."

The question is: Are sports leading the decline in civility or merely reflecting a cultural shift? Perhaps a little of both. As George Orwell wrote: "A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks."

This phenomenon shows no end. Certainly no easy solution.

"Our whole culture is evolving that way," Wakefield says. "We're a little more in your face, a little less civilized."

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At schools and parks throughout San Diego, Kinsfather has witnessed the change. In two decades of involvement with Pop Warner, never before has she heard this kind of talk from people at her games.

"They are a lot more vocal," she says. "They get so angry."

The officials' association receives two or three reports of physical assaults against officials each week. This information, though incomplete, suggests that violence is most common at the youth level.

Referees have no locker rooms to run to for safety. Rarely is security provided to quiet abusive crowds.

Kinsfather wonders if those images on television -- scenes of vitriol in big-time stadiums -- are working against her in two ways.

Not only might they scare off potential officials her conference so desperately needs, they might also embolden young players and parents. So she will view the Super Bowl from a slightly different perspective.

"We see our kids out there trying to emulate the professional football players," she says. "The parents are the same way."

They watch players and coaches yelling at referees, crowds throwing beer bottles.

"They see it on TV," she says. "And they think that it's OK."

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