It is a staple of American culture that every freshly painted fence gets defaced. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. Deal with it.
The trick, though, if you happen to be the fence, is in figuring how to clean up after the soiling and become a more stalwart and better-appreciated barrier.
Which brings us, hellishly enough, to Ed Hochuli.
You know Ed. We all know Ed. Ed is a fixture of the American Weekend. He is the NFL referee who does arm curls 21 hours a day and on Sundays officiates games while reprising Winston Churchill’s greatest hits.
And like most officials in all sports, he is largely reviled. Like I said, it’s what we do. It’s who we are. Live with the collective shame.
Hochuli has been a familiar target of the disaffected Couch Nation representatives for years because they actually do know who he is, and they believe, quite wrongly and even stupidly, that he is at fault for their knowing who he is. He has been roundly mocked, castigated, savaged and even Twitter-beaten for, well, being remorselessly and persistently Ed.
But a funny thing has happened to Hochuli in this spectacular year of NFL officiating cockups. He has become the guy you actually do want to see work your team’s game on Sunday. He disappoints only when his thigh-like arms are covered, and after the Clete Blakeman None-Of-Your-Business-Why-We-Picked-Up-That-Flag-In-Carolina, his seemingly interminable stem-winders explaining why the false start you just saw is actually covered under four different NFL rules interpretations so that’s why the ball is being placed at the 24 rather than the 23 . . . well, why they are now comforting rather than irritating.
He is appreciated again, for all the reasons he has been criticized before – because explanations are good, not bad, and knowing why you are explaining something is even better still. Bloviation in the defense of knowledge is no vice.
His arms? Well, that’s not an area of psychodynamics in which I wish to tread, frankly.
But Hochuli exposes a quiet truth about officiating and our reaction to it. We do not buy into the notion that the best officials are never known or noticed. That is an oft-repeated falsehood, and the basis for all wrongheaded notions about the art, both inside the industry and in the taverns and living rooms we populate.
Starting with, “The best officials are the ones you never notice.” Nope. Demonstrably wrong. Hochuli, Jim Joyce, Joey Crawford, Dan O’Halloran, Howard Webb, or your boogeyman of choice, all matter to you because:
(1) You pay attention to everything more than you ever have. More information has made you more voracious fans, and yes, that includes the targets of your momentary ire. You cannot hate officials you do not know; there's no joy in that. It's like hating math without knowing the numbers 2, 4 or 7.
(2) Their presence provides a context for the importance of the game. If your game gets a good or veteran official, the league is subtly telling you it gets that your game is important, and if you get a rookie or an average/faceless drone, you’ll know it isn’t.
(3) Their consistency, presuming they have it, allows you to pretend you know how a game is going to be played. If your officials like to let things go, you can tailor your viewing experience thusly, and vice versa. And if your officials have a reputation for screwing up calls, you can plan on it happening at some point in your game.
(4) Las Vegas keeps statistics on officials just like it does everything else, and very few sports fans don’t like pretending they know as much as the Nevada sharps do. It's one of our most comforting conceits.
In sum, we need Ed, and Joey, and Jim, and Howard. Like it or not, that’s the fact.
Conversely, officiating isn’t about being ego-less. It’s about ego in every way – just applied differently. It takes a strong self-belief system to work an elite sporting event and believe you can apply parameters by which all players get a chance to apply their skills while staying within the rules determined by the people who pay everyone. You don’t want officials who want to remain anonymous, because the job does not permit it. At some point, every official gets caught in the crosshairs, and it takes serious innards to know how to be in position, see what happened, make the correct call, and prepare to weather the abuse that follows. You want someone who faces the job jaw-out, fearless while being modest about his fearlessness. Joyce blew a perfect game call and ended up looking better for acknowledging his error freely and immediately. Crawford irritates routinely but remains the official all coaches want to see in their biggest games. Webb worked a World Cup final without starting a military incursion.
And Ed. There is always Ed.
There aren’t many of these creatures about, and contrary to popular belief, they are very hard to replace. And until the leagues are prepared to use and maintain robots (and they would do that if they could get the robot companies to comp them the software), humans with whistles will have to be developed, improved, and when need be, replaced.
So yes, ego is involved, and it should be. To think otherwise is madness born of misplaced vengeance from perceived or real errors in the past.
Now one other thing. If you think officials are in fact crooked game-fixers, serving either gamblers (Tim Donaghy) or league officials (the default position for most good conspiracies), and that games are routinely manipulated, bent or guided, then you seriously should stop following that sport. If you think you’re not watching the genuine article, don’t watch any more. That cannot be a hard concept to grasp, or a difficult task to undertake. Dispose your income elsewhere; spend your time on other pursuits. There is no value in believing you’re a chump while being, well, chumped.
But if you believe instead that officiating is just imperfect, erratic, inconsistent and sometimes just plain absurd, then you also accept that they still have value if trained well, supported properly, and armed with the courage to do a job well in the face of walls of abuse.
Which means, well, the renaissance of Ed, his arms, and his filibusters. Like the song goes, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?” So explain away, Ed. We are enraptured by the mere anticipation of your next treatise on the philosophy of the defenseless player.
Whatever the hell that is.