Referral Madness

“There are other reasons why officials are quitting, but there’s one consistent theme: a total breakdown of respect.”

– “There’s a Shortage of High School Game Officials in Massachusetts, and Abusive Fans Are at Fault,” Boston Globe, November 1, 2019


I have a colleague who refs, and I asked him if he’d read the above article. He gave me a weary look and said: “I don’t need to read about it.” He then told me about the verbal abuse he’d received the night before. It was quite something.

I’ve become interested in officiating for two reasons. First, I listened to Michael Lewis’ podcast, Against the Rules, about the growing lack of respect for referees, both in sports and beyond. Second, this autumn, after decades of absence, I returned to organized sport – slow pitch softball, that is. In accordance with my fielding ability I was assigned catcher, so I spent a lot of time next to umpires. The experience left me with considerable respect for what they do. I mean, you go bring your total focus to some drizzly field on a Monday at 9:15pm in October.

A guy I used to teach with also works as a referee, so I asked him what he’d recommend to improve matters. He sent the following response, which, on the condition of anonymity, he graciously agreed for me to post:


I can only speak to basketball at the youth and high school level, but assignors are struggling to get bodies. No one wants to take the abuse from parents and/or coaches. Everything is on film now and no matter what we do, we’re wrong. We don’t get paid enough to take most of the BS that comes with it. Every parent thinks their kid is getting a scholarship, it’s not happening for 99.9% of them! How about teaching kids sportsmanship and communication skills with teammates, coaches, umpires, referees. Instead, you have these psycho parents and coaches berating officials trying to make some gas money income for the week. It’s a joke.

Couple areas where sports in general could improve at the youth level:

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Career Coach


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Bill Belichick is one of the greatest coaches of all time, especially for the workplace. Bosses should take these pages from his playbook.

Look for Talent Everywhere

The current Patriots roster not only includes players who fielded different positions in college, but those who played lacrosse, rugby, and other sports. Belichick saw skills or traits in each of them that led him to believe they could succeed elsewhere. The obvious example is Julian Edelman, told throughout college he was too small to be a quarterback. His size and quickness make him ideal for wriggling through tackles on kick returns, and evading coverage as a wide receiver.

The Situation

Quick: what’s the maximum numbers of plays you can run with 34 seconds on the clock and three timeouts? Or, on fourth and 17, down by 10 with two minutes left, should you go for the touchdown or kick a field goal?

The Patriots tend to prevail over their opponents (most famously, Seattle, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh) in such moments because they practice these exact situations. In an office setting, it stuns me how often we fail to practice situational football.

How many salespeople actually conduct dress rehearsals before presentations? Or – instead of the standard interview – have potential new hires submit proposals and undergo scenario tests? Or even A/B test email campaigns? (E.g. for a campaign of 30,000, first send to a subset of 300 recipients, trying out different subject lines to see which version gets read the most. That one? Use it for the other 29,700.)

Coach Early and Often

Pundits were astonished to see Belichick turn his back to the field of play during the Super Bowl so that he could give his players pointers. Most coaches would save such advice for film study –  they don’t have the confidence in their staff to delegate while play goes on. And yet –  in my experience – what separates coaching from instruction is the continuous nature of the former. Moreover, by far, the two best times to coach someone are immediately after the mistake and immediately before the next time they attempt the task. (You wouldn’t train a dog by scolding it three days after it peed on the rug; nor does this time lapse in feedback succeed in the workplace.)

Let It Go

This is my favorite. During Belichick’s tenure, he’s had at least a dozen assistant coaches come and go; some have become his competitors. Only by such “flight risk” can bosses ensure they fully cultivate talent. Opening the door, and encouraging our subordinates to walk through it, demonstrates trust and empowers them to do their best – even if it means seeing good people leave.



Note: As is evident from the business acumen, I didn’t write this. My friend Ben Poor did. He lives in New York City and is a sharp dressed man. He will beat you at poker.



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I keep a couple of favorite words in my back pocket – English words with a beautiful sound and a beguiling poetry. Everyone who cares even a little about language surely has their own list.

Mine has two words tied for first place: “evening” and “watershed.”

There’s a third word I never tire of hearing: “Touché!”

In terms of sound and etymology, “Touché!” wouldn’t be my favorite word in English, even if it were an English word. It isn’t even my favorite French word. It is, however, the very highest compliment you could possibly pay me.

Touché originated as a term in the elegant sport of fencing, acknowledging an opponent’s jab that has found its mark cleanly and effectively.

Likewise, in conversation, you’re using the same word to tell me: “I acknowledge that you have just insulted me, but you did so gently, and far from being offended, I’m smiling with marvel at how witty your remark was. You exposed something we both understood was true, and you did so in a spirit of teasing, not as a headbutt. I really should not want to laugh, but I must laugh, and for that I salute you.”


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The word must always be presented alone, as if on a platter, and must always include the exclamation point. Strip away the exclamation point, and the word becomes something different: you’re acknowledging the gentle insult at your expense, all right, but you’re doing so peevishly, thereby robbing the word of its value, and far from defusing the insult, you’re making the explosion twice as powerful. But keep the exclamation point intact, and your “Touché!” is a gift, like verbally handing your insulter a hundred dollars.

I try to give this gift away as often as possible, and when a friend insults me gently but accurately, it’s a lyrical and fairly inexpensive way to say thanks, I’m in on the joke, and we’re good.


Once, early in a new relationship, I asked my friend John if he thought my new friend and I made a neurotic couple. “Well, I know you were a neurotic single, so yes, I’d say you make a neurotic couple,” he said.

This was many years ago, and I still smile at the speed and accuracy of that dart. If I didn’t say “Touché!,” it’s only because I was laughing too hard.

For all of its potential value, though, “Touché!” is also a comment I almost never come across. Is it too old-fashioned, or is it just a matter of the word not being the typical first thing that comes to mind when you’ve just been teased?


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