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Our Umpiring Obsession: A Public Administration Perspective

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
October 11, 2016


American society is obsessed with our umpires. Analysis of presidential debates—from the participants, the pundits, and the general public—goes beyond the substance and articulation of the candidates to the performance of the moderator.  Every viewer is now a media critic, with a broad internet megaphone.

The questions and control of the political forums are certainly important, but candidates for one of the most important and powerful offices in the world should be able to deftly handle a few reporters if they are going to lead the United States in domestic and global affairs. It ought not to matter who referees the time and topics of these television programs because the president ought to be able to express his or her agenda regardless of the circumstances.

Obviously, our obsession with umpires reaches a fever pitch when referee rulings influence the outcomes of our sporting events. Frame by frame autopsies on split second decisions become fodder for hours of in-game and postgame discussion. It’s rare to watch a televised football game without an analyst providing mind-numbingly, detailed perspective on the meaning of a catch or a knee touching the ground. Referees do make significant mistakes, but champion teams should provide superior enough performance to negate these occasional errors.

The fundamental reason for our compulsion to criticize these arbiters is our desire for fairness. In our inherently unequal society, we want to observe and support a level playing field in the competitions for votes, points or whatever objective these individuals and groups seek. When the result does not meet our desires, we are apt to blame the officials. I am certainly guilty of this rebuke on behalf of teams I support. With rare exceptions, however, these mistakes are innocent. The umpires may be wrong, but they put in a good faith effort to support fairness.

This preoccupation, however, is not only a concern in professional sports or national politics. As a retired recreational sports referee and former college professor who assigned grades, I occasionally found myself on the front lines of this cultural milieu. To be fair to the kickball teams I umpired last fall, I made mistakes. I missed things; maybe the sun was in my eyes. I made a couple of vigorous but wrong safe or out calls. I understand that it was frustrating to the players, but I can assure everyone that I had no interest in any team winning and my snafus were simply a result of inexperience and human error. I accept that players might have expressed dissatisfaction, but the best teams still won. I didn’t interfere with anyone’s fun, which is the primary purpose of adult kickball.

Unlike kickball referees, professors should stand behind all of their feedback and grading. Professors are on the same team as their students. They much prefer to enjoy an assignment that exceeds expectations and earns high marks than one that requires a bold critique. In a society so focused on referees, however, it is understandable that students or any other party may see any critical arbiter as a biased arbiter. This is of particular importance for those public administrators who find themselves interpreting the rules and serving as umpires to protect the public interest.

From the street-level bureaucrat trying to decide how to settle a minor dispute to the agency chief promulgating a flexible but complex rule with competing stakeholders that will impact billions of dollars of commerce, public administrators serve as umpires in carrying out public policy and protecting contemporary society. Where empowered, judgment and discretion are part of the responsibility of individuals in these positions of authority.

A long career in the public service will result in occasional mistakes for any rational human being. However, there are ways to avoid being an umpire at the center of a controversy. Public administrators involved in refereeing an issue need to act ethically in an evidenced-based manner, without prejudice, consistent with legal processes and rooted in the rules and requirements of the position. That will not necessarily remove all complaints, particularly when there is a zero sum situation with clear winners and losers, but it will mitigate the critique and support the case that the general public should have faith in public administration.

It is time to relieve ourselves of the umpiring obsession. The solution to this societal malady will require a broad shift in cultural perspectives. As moderators, umpires, referees, teachers and public administrators, we can facilitate this shift by staying neutral and working to overcome the inequities of the modern world. Only when the public perceives fairness and professional competence can attention shift away from umpires to the real purpose of the debate, game, assignment or public policy.

AuthorBenjamin Deitchman’s book, Climate and Clean Energy Policy: State Institutions and Economic Implications, due out December 16, 2016, is available for pre-order. Dr. Deitchman’s email is [email protected].

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