From the stories of Moses and the prophets who followed him, we learn of three major tasks of a prophet. Put very simply, the prophet’s first task is to discover the law; the second task is to show how the law can–or must–be put into practice; and the third task is to make spirit available.
-Bill Taber. The Prophetic Stream, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #256. (1984). Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill.
Perhaps the role of the sport official is to be a prophet on the field of play. The tasks are similar: the official must learn the laws of the game, then s/he shows, corrects and instructs the competitors how to put them into practice. The third–and I think summative–task is to make the spirit of the game available to all in the arena. I’m less certain about this third task of the referee, so I’ll write more about it here.
No one else in the arena represents the sport itself as certainly and purely as the officials. The competitors are bound up in love for their team, the need to prove themselves and the desires to win or to represent the school or city. Coaches want to develop, protect and promote the athletes and team that they work for. The spectators are typically motivated by love for an individual or perhaps the whole team. The referee knows none of that. S/he may be unacquainted with any competitor or coach, and endeavors to make clear that any personal relationships with them are kept at a professional distance while both are on this field of play. Referees have no close relationship with either team. The official is there to be sure that amidst all this competitive desire and the hormones it arouses in the others, that the game and its laws are followed–and ultimately loved.
This is an objective that transcends the immediate arena. That is why we refer to the numinous “spirit of the game.” The title alludes faintly to a Spirit that is held holy by many of the different religious faiths held by those on the field. Whether or not we accept one of those faiths, the spirit of the particular game is what the competitors and the crowd wish to refer to the officials for—the heritage of that sport itself.
More than just rules, there is an attitude toward competition and a unique way of relating to other players that seems to be held within the rules and the traditions of each sport. Cross country runners are aloof and intellectual until they are vomiting after the race, baseball players chatty until they are riled, and basketballers will let you know verbally when they’ve beaten you one on one. After throwing a ball full speed at each other’s legs, cricketers drink tea together. Swimmers yell at their teammates, even though there’s not much chance of understanding any words in their hyperechoic arena with ears clogged with water.
Perhaps it is through practicing, following and even venerating the sport that we can learn the lessons for the our lives outside the arena of competition. These are lessons that participation in the sport has taught others through generations of competition. Playing American Football lets us know when we are more powerful than our matchup and, in contrast, how the only success that matters is rarely a matter of individual ability. In training, distance runners learn of euphoria; in competition, about pain tolerance. Soccer is about taking away the critical physical ability unique to us as primates and then competing with teamwork, cleverness, speed and improvisation. Each game has a gift to show its participants. The officials are key to directing us through and beyond our competitive instincts to experience what sport and life have to teach us.