No One Wants To Be A Ref Any More And Why Should They?

No One Wants To Be A Ref Any More And Why Should They?


Leonard Zwelling

I am finishing up the seven-part Podcast hosted by author Michael Lewis called Against The Rules. It discusses in a number of areas the decline of the relationship between the refs and those reffed. There is far more hostility between sports fans and the refs, umps and zebras (football officials). Even Serena Williams took it out on a ref at the last U.S. Open and frankly made an ass out of herself. And Lewis notes that it is the best performers who create the most hostility between themselves and the refs. Some NBA players really believe that they have never committed a foul. NFLers never hold and that couldn’t have been a called third strike. All of this is part and parcel of big-time sports. Women are disqualified for having too much testosterone as if the fact that any other physical trait of a gifted athlete does not give her an advantage. How stupid can you get? If she’s got two and only two X chromosomes, let her run. One woman has longer legs and she can run. Because another has high natural levels of testosterone, she can’t? That’s nuts.

But this is not going on just in big time sports, as Lewis quickly makes clear in the podcasts.

Judges in America’s courts are just coming to grips with their own biases and emotions. They aren’t without emotions and those emotions affect their decisions. So does their degree of hunger. Sentences given out before lunch are harsher than those given out afterwards. Hmm…

Just like in the case of financial conflict of interest in academic medicine where the drug companies seek to alter the mindset of the prescribers, things that affect the mindset of referees affect their calls. They’re human after all. That’s why academic researchers cannot have financial conflicts with the big drug companies whose trials they run. The researchers are supposed to be dispassionate arbiters of the truth of a drug’s efficacy and safety, not an investor in the results of the trials they oversee.

One of the reasons the best corporations have independent boards of directors is because the ultimate judge in the company cannot be the CEO alone. He or she is human. He or she will make mistakes. The board is there to minimize the effects of errors in judgment and preserve the integrity of the company. Both the CEO and the board have vested interests in this system working. (They all hold stock). They serve as checks and balances for possible sources of bias or emotional prejudice.

The same is supposed to be true in the federal government. The three branches are supposed to serve as checks and balances for each other so that the country doesn’t go too far in the wrong direction. This hasn’t worked so well of late as the Trump Administration is trying to pack the courts with conservative judges who Mr. Trump believes work for him and the Congress has been reticent to do much about it and in fact has gone backwards by eliminating the filibuster in votes to confirm judges—even those for the Supreme Court.

For some reason, some people seem to feel that the President of the United States cannot make mistakes and shouldn’t be held accountable for what he does or says. That’s not what the Constitution says, nor is it how prior Congresses have acted. Congress needs to be the board representing the people of the country in matters of great consequence to the nation. Right now, Congress isn’t doing its job overseeing the actions of the president.

But then there is the extreme case where there are no refs at all.

MD Anderson is one of those.

There’s a board in name only. The Board of Regents, but the Regents are political appointees in Austin and fairly disconnected from the day-to-day doings of MD Anderson. There’s a Shared Governance Committee that appears to me to be packed with presidential appointees, but they could serve as a board of directors, but can they really when the president or his designee probably does their annual reviews.

I’ve been on speaking terms with four of the MD Anderson presidents and I’d like to hold up the first of these who I knew as the one that got it most right.

Dr. LeMaistre was one of the most personable people I ever knew, BUT, he wasn’t close friends with the people who worked for him. He did not reveal much of himself even during the trips I made with him to Austin as a new associate vice president during a crisis in clinical research that we had to explain to the Regents. He was friendly and distant all at once. This allowed him to make the tough decisions he was called upon to make and do so with a umpire’s distance from the outcome.

Of course, he and the next two presidents got caught up in some conflict of interest matters that were hurtful to themselves and to the institution, so they became biased themselves. They were still strong figures, but not good referees. And defining a bad referee is pretty easy. He or she is not perceived as fair. He or she cares about the outcome of that which they are judging.

The lesson is pretty clear. At a time in human history when everyone seems to know everything about everyone thanks to the Internet, what makes a good referee effective, credible and fair may be distance.

At some point all presidents of major academic institutions need to be referees. Their ability to be perceived as fair depends on how they have led up to the point of the tough decision. To be perceived as fair they may also have to be perceived as aloof. That’s a tough line to walk, but it’s one most necessary at Anderson until there’s a board in place to check the president.

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