By Dave Lomonico
By now everyone and their dog knows about Elizabeth Lambert, the University of New Mexico soccer player whose on-field shenanigans earned her YouTube fame, worldwide ridicule and an indefinite suspension. The video shows Lambert punching an opposing player in the back, diving at players’ shins and yanking an opponent down by her ponytail.
Lambert has been vilified enough, but one group has gotten a relative free pass in this debacle: the referees. Watching the video, there are at least four incidents warranting a yellow card and two that should have been red cards. What were the refs watching while Lambert dive-bombed players like Ty Cobb stealing second? Barring momentary blindness, their failure to control Lambert was perplexing.
Sure, referees can’t see everything. But failing to correct blatant, intended violence -- especially if it’s repeated -- is not only a sign of incompetence, it’s also unethical.
Games get physical. Referees shouldn’t stop play for every hit batter, questionable tackle or low hit. But when physicality turns to violence, referees have a responsibility to act. Their No. 1 job is to control the game and ensure player safety. Otherwise, the sports arena becomes a modern-day Roman Colosseum.
That being said, sport fans love violence. That’s why they drop big bucks for pay-per-view boxing matches and MMA fights, relish the inevitable hockey melee and replay the punch Oregon’s LeGarrette Blount threw after his football team lost to Boise State.
Therefore, it’s no surprise fans complain when boxing officials stop fights, when umpires warn benches and when refs call personal fouls on ticky-tack hits. Sports are violent -- don’t turn them into a ballet.
Wrong. Sports are controlled violence. There is no place in athletics for viciousness. Vilify officials for being too strict but realize they’re doing their jobs. Allow too many little incidents and eventually those minor skirmishes escalate into major outbursts.
Witness sports like ice hockey. Teams employ “enforcers” who wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for their fists. NHL refs routinely allow fights because it’s supposedly “part of the game.” That ho-hum attitude inevitably leads to brutality and even bloodshed.
Remember Todd Bertuzzi's infamous 2004 hit on Steve Moore? Bertuzzi came up behind Moore, threw a punch, pinned him to the ice and knocked him out. Moore suffered serious spinal damage and never played again.
That’s an extreme example. Most athletic fights are no more than minor tussles, but it’s better for officials to err on the side of caution. Their prudence could save a player’s career -- or life.
Of course, officials can’t be directly blamed for cruel on-field incidents. In extreme physical sports such as football and boxing, hostility is inevitable. But in an emotionally-charged, steroid-riddled world where athletes can crush a man’s skull with one hand, officials must limit extracurricular violence as much as possible.
Officials’ ineptitude is a major concern, especially in sports such as boxing and MMA. In the lower rungs of boxing, referees tend to be less experienced, less assertive and thus more prone to making major mistakes. There’s a reason there are numerous deaths in non-sanctioned boxing bouts and only a couple every year in professional fights. Simply put, the boxers and the ring officials are better at the top level.
There is already some apprehension about MMA officiating. There are more and more MMA bouts every year but the number of well-trained officials is not increasing as rapidly.
In a sport predicated on violence, it’s only a matter of time before a fighter goes berserk and an official fails to intervene. “Blood sports” are ethically questionable as it is. Using unprepared officials only compounds the problem.
Which leads back to the Lambert incident. Compared to career-ending sucker punches, is pulling a ponytail really worth pouting about? Perhaps not. But by failing to recognize or reprimand the illegal actions, the referees indirectly encouraged Lambert’s behavior.
Violence begets violence. It’s contagious. Without intervention, the cycle will spiral out of control. And then it will be too late. Just ask Steve Moore.