Mike Carey was the first “African-American” to head a crew that refereed a Super Bowl—the one in which the sainted Tom Brady got his butt kicked by the lowly Giants. The term African-American offends me, and should offend all patriots, and probably offends Mike Carey, who is an accomplished entrepreneur and inventor, the CEO of a company that has as much to do with Africa as I have to do with being an “English-American.”
Mr. Carey is a good referee. Like most National Football League officials, he is a man who first made a successful life and then transferred good judgment and calm demeanor into a job that few men can do. Referees are judges; they require prudence. In every game we call a sport, there are rules that are broken even more often than in politics or marriages. “Holding” on the offensive line could be called on every play of every football game; so how can Mike Carey draw a line between a competitor and a cheater?
That is the job of referees. Umpire was the word most of us grew up with—a derivative of an old English word that described arbiters, men who were given the task of keeping families and tribes from killing each other over matters that could be resolved short of swordplay or gunfire. The reason men such as Mike Carey get appointed to umpire NFL games is that they have the gravitas to sort out competitors from cheaters in the most violent sport we have invented since Rome stopped killing Christians in public arenas.
Even the most serious umpires have become subject to the supposedly more objective tests of cameras. Ted Williams, who may have had the best eyes of any professional athlete ever, decided early in his career never to question an umpire’s call; otherwise he would have to question every one of their calls. Major League Baseball players have, on the average, 20-12 vision. They are not like the rest of us. Yet we do not subject their umpires to “replay” cameras—not yet, anyway.
Baseball umpires are street guys—or they have been, historically. You will never see Mike Carey nose to nose with Bill Belichick, but you might see Jim McKean throw the gentleman Jim Leyland out of a baseball game. The cultures are different. NBA referees are a joke. Hockey officials are somewhere between boxing referees and figure skaters and subject, like their football counterparts, to camera decisions. In general, we have diminished umpires, probably with good reason.
I grew up in a time when umpires did not enter our lives until about age 14. No Little League, Pop Warner, or junior this or that. We played whatever game was in season in whatever field or barn was available. We played tackle football in a lot that had a concrete sidewalk as one boundary and a ditch as the other, and one end zone was a gravel driveway. The basketball court was the upper part of our barn, about 30 feet wide and just high enough to get the ball over a regulation basket. We never had even a cinder track to run on. Every game was played with boys working things out with other boys. We learned not to cheat, because cheating drew great penalties; we learned to compete, because not to compete drew great penalties. When we got to the formal level and had coaches and referees, it would not have occurred to us to cheat or to fail to respect our umpires. We had worked that out long ago.
Umpires are diminished because the games are diminished. Here is an example. The best referee I have ever known was John Gee. John was six foot nine, and had played with the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates for a year or two. He was a legendary semipro pitcher in western New York, able at the age of 38 or 40 to throw the ball 100 miles per hour, pitching only every other week. I batted against him when I was 15, called into service on our “town team” because injuries reduced us to teenagers. I dug in at the plate. A grizzled old catcher said, “Stay loose, son,” and John threw the first pitch right at my left ear. I wanted to go back to the dugout and cry.
Well, you respected a man like that. He refereed many of my high-school basketball games, and he was the only official on the court. When he made a call, nobody argued. I don’t remember if he ever made a bad call; it wasn’t an issue. John was a high-school principal, a man of accomplishment and principle, and we were boys who had learned by hard knocks to accept what was given to us. Mike Carey, I suspect, has similar respect.
Black boys play basketball and Hispanic boys play baseball in circumstances not unlike the ones I grew up in. Umpires make little difference to them. They just play. Football requires greater order, because it is the most violent game short of war that boys get to play. So, Mike Carey is necessary.
Unfortunately, we now have too many games on too many levels and with too many sexes playing them. Just as there are too few good teachers and too few good priests and too few good CEOs, there are too few good umpires. As the pool is diminished, the games are diminished. Bad umpires synchronize with bad parents. The line between cheaters and competitors is increasingly blurry. Mike Carey, “African-American” or not, might be a dying breed.