Referees: Do They Really Deserve It?

As we approach the final weeks of the Six Nations, we can reflect upon the excellent games and sportsmanship demonstrated so far in the series. It is also a time to review the mistakes and expose the flaws in a sport, that has prided itself on sportsmanship and a belief in the game that outweighs nationalism.
This Six Nations demands a harsher examination on the treatment of referees and players within the sport in its attempts to exclude errors of judgement and unsporting behaviour. With the advancement of technology surrounding the game, every angle of play covered in incredible high definition and quality, referees have even more at their disposal to ensure a good, fair game and exclude doubt from their decisions. However, these decisions are also broadcast across the country as well as in the grounds themselves in the same definition and as a result invites more speculation from the public eye and the everyday fan.

We had the poor decision of the TMO in the England v. Wales game that exposed the frailty of referee judgements even when video evidence is available. We all make mistakes and we all have opinions; the exposure technology grants every viewer has made us all referees. As a result, the Welsh touchdown against England really was a try, the TMO made a mistake and the potential for the game lost. Many Welsh fans aggrieved; English fans relieved. But the outcome was the same and so it should be, there is an element of luck in any endeavour, sporting or otherwise.

Then there was the shocking defeat of England by Scotland in the Calcutta Cup 22-13. But again, after the match the authority of referees within rugby has been brought to the forefront. Welsh international rugby union referee Nigel Owens, who as the current world record holder for the most test matches refereed, has found himself under scrutiny for the decisions made in that tense game.
Owens was accused of cheating and bias for his various decisions during the game. Owens ruled against two tries for the English side: one by Danny Care due to an infringement on the ground by Joe Launchberry and another by Owen Farrell that resulted from Courtney Lawes’ knock-on. A later yellow card against Sam Underhill flared more than a few tempers and fans took to social media, as many aggrieved fans do, to share their displeasure.
At the forefront, BBC TV presenter Nick Knowles, who accused the Welsh referee of bias and cheating, tweeting: “So @NigelrefOwens single-handedly trying to avenge the England defeat of Wales – let them play. Refs are not the stars of the show.”.
In response to this attack on Owens, the rugby community consisting of various rugby legends, including Sir Clive Woodward and Paul O’Connell, banded together to praise Owen’s performance during the game. Will Greenwood went so far as to express that he was “embarrassed by some of the comments made towards Nigel Owens…England rugby can have no complaints about Scotland team win. Many things to blame – none of them Nigel.’ Reviews of the game footage have also been examined and found validity in all of Owens’ key decisions.

Owens himself responded to the accusations that were founded on social media. He stated “I will never block anyone on Twitter for thinking I didn’t referee well. What I do block people for is if they call a referee a cheat or accuse them of bias.” He stressed his desire to improve his skills for the betterment of the game and the sport as a whole. Pushing forward the belief in the honesty and fairness of the game above the constrictions of national identity and pride.

Owens’ opinion of the role of the referee can therefore be seen as to benefit the game despite being subsequently blamed for the results. It begs the question; how much responsibility does the referee have over the result of the game and therefore how much blame should they take for making their decisions?
At the end of the day the referee has to make the final decision otherwise all authority is removed and the whole system breaks down. Technology can help but it is not infallible, and the interpretation of the footage still must be made by a human being. Referees have always taken abuse about decisions in all sports but their decisions need to stand regardless of public opinion. Who could ever forget John McEnroe’s outburst in Stockholm in 1984?

Regrettably however, this was not the only controversy Owens was caught up in during this game. During the 65th minute, Owens gave a yellow card to Sam Underhill and the subtitles reported the action to viewers as “Nigel Owens is a gay penalty and yellow card”. Was this an unfortunate subtitling mistake in the BBC’s broadcast as stated? True, this was immediately corrected but it resulted in much offence to fans.

Since coming out as homosexual in May 2007 to Wales on Sunday, Owens has become a prominent gay figure within rugby. He has spoken out on multiple occasions about his struggles with his sexuality within the sport that affected his career and mental health and run campaigns in the interest of addressing both. Owens stated in interview that it was “such a big taboo to be gay in my line of work” and later went on to specify that “the rugby world is very heterosexual and masculine, and this made things difficult…discrimination of any kind has no place in our sport or society”. The appearance of such subtitles during the broadcast was therefore met with much outrage and opposition due to its discriminatory quality.

The BBC later made an official statement to apologise for the mistake, stating that although their equipment is 98% accurate “on this occasion the voice recognition subtitling software made an error which was spotted and corrected immediately.” That is OK then if it was an AI error, set deep in previous programming, so what triggered the that automatic error? The words penalty, yellow or card? Or could it be that stored away somewhere in its artificial memory a combination of the words Nigel and Owens triggers the word gay. More specifically, ‘a gay’ using the indefinite article as an even more isolating and derogatory means of defining someone by their sexuality. Is that all the world record holder and accomplished figure within rugby should be defined by, his sexuality?

Altogether a bad day for rugby; unworthy comments by fans about decisions by Owens that were subsequently proven right. A glitch in subtitling that compounded an already unsatisfactory situation. Let us hope that these are but one-off instances and that technology, social media and fans just let the game be played in the rest of the 2018 tournament.