Mike Carey avoided Washington games for nearly a decade.

I can’t quite wrap my head around this. But I will try.

Mike Carey, universally regarded as one of the strongest officials (in any sport) over the past two decades, retired from NFL officiating a few months ago to become the Mike Pereira of CBS Sports. It’s wonderful (and overdue) that CBS is joining Fox and ESPN (Gerald Austin) in hiring an officiating expert for their NFL broadcasts, and Carey, with his articulate gentleness, is a great choice for the job.

At any rate, as the link describes, when journalists met with the CBS crew, they asked them whether they would use the nickname of Washington’s team on the air. Carey said he had only called them “Washington” throughout his whole life, and wouldn’t stop now. But then, a reporter presented him with the fact that he had not worked a Washington regular season or playoff game since 2006, and Carey revealed something he had kept secret since then: he had asked–and received–permission not to officiate Washington’s games since then.

“It just became clear to me that to be in the middle of the field, where something disrespectful is happening, was probably not the best thing for me,” Carey said.

First, full disclosure: I really think that the Washington NFL nickname is a sad joke that should have ended decades ago. One of my rival high schools in the ’80s went by the same name, and they found the name offensive and changed it to “Reds”…in 1993. I also believe the nickname “Indians” should be nixed, that Chief Wahoo is as offensive as some of the worst racist images in our history, and that pseudo-Native fan behavior like the Tomahawk Chop is horrific. I can live with the names Chiefs and Braves, or local native tribe names if approved by the leaders of that tribe.

But my own opinions on the naming issue, while deeply-held, are beside the point here. I am wrestling with the question of Carey’s stance and how I feel about officials taking a stance on their deeply-held beliefs (regardless of the belief).

I do think that it’s tremendous that Carey said he couldn’t be a part of something offensive. I started wondering if I could do the same if there were a local high school with the same name, or something equally offensive (Pekin Ch–ks, anyone?) Would I be willing to take a similar stand?

I guess I wouldn’t have thought about taking a stand as an official. I’d certainly fight it via the school board and maybe a few letters to the editor. Once those were printed, would the school want me to officiate their games? Maybe not. I know I would officiate them fairly: I”m not going to penalize a kid because they go to a school with a lousy nickname. But I’d feel bad for making my assignor’s life difficult by telling him I don’t want to do any West High Epithets games anymore. I take a lot of pride in not dinging any schools (other than the one where I teach), regardless of inconvenience or jerk coaches, and I take pride in giving the kids my all and my fairness.

And yet, if I’m on the court with the West High Epithets, am I a part of the problem? Am I perpetuating the offensive nickname by taking a paycheck to officiate their games?

Mike Carey thinks I would be, and I respect that opinion. So I’ll take a look at his own boycott, which I find interesting for two reasons.

First–and I can’t get over this–the only reason he could do this is because of his incredible reputation as an official. For the most part, so many people want to officiate at the college and pro levels that anyone short of the very best (like Carey) would have been dropped like a greased John Elway pass for making a similar scheduling demand. Much like my high school assignor, Carey made his NFL assignor’s job more difficult by refusing to work with one team. One reason the NFL went along with it is because it couldn’t afford to lose him: he worked the Super Bowl after the 2007 season, so they’d have let go a premier official at the very peak of his abilities. I also wonder if they’d have feared Carey would have given his reasons for departing, or if other officials would have followed.

That said, I wonder whether Carey’s boycott of Washington games really counts as a form of civil disobedience or even as a boycott because he kept it secret. Only now are we learning that Washington didn’t get a tip-top official to do their games because of their nickname. What would have happened if he had publicly made his request? Would he have more effectively added to the pressure to change the name?

I can’t speak for Carey, and I will be interested in seeing him further explain his choices if he decides to do so. But when I put myself in his shoes, I would fear that negative feedback would impact the perception of my partiality.

Suppose, for instance, that Carey were officiating a late-season Cowboys/Giants game with playoff ramifications for Washington. Late in the game, he makes a key, close, or maybe even controversial call that goes against the team Washington needs to win. (I don’t know: maybe this happened.)

There is no way he could do that safely. And there is no way the NFL would allow that to happen if both Carey and the league had gone public with his decision to avoid Washington games. So he did it in secret.

But, secret or not, is the NFL’s choice to allow Carey’s boycott and schedule around it simply a testament to Carey’s ability and reputation? Or is it a tacit admission that Carey’s boycott is legitimate?

It seems to me that both of those must be true. If the NFL head of officiating–or his bosses (surely someone up the ladder was aware of the boycott, although Carey isn’t sure) would never have granted Carey’s request if they felt there was no justification for it. I know the NFL keeps certain officials away from certain teams based on past controversies (Bill Leavy/Seattle, Ed Hochuli/San Diego, some others I’m forgetting), but if they permitted Carey’s boycott, would they have had to honor other officials’ similar requests?

silent protest with multiple officials surely would have made an impact. I lauded officials in Topeka, Kansas for refusing to work at a high school that wouldn’t permit female officials to referee boys’ basketball games. I’d have been even more impressed if the whole association had joined that boycott, even just by declining assignments to work there. This would have left the association saying to St. Mary’s: “Sorry, we have to refund your money. We can’t find anyone who wants to go along with your philosophies.”  This could work at other levels.. For example, what if all NBA officials refused to work Clippers’ games, had Donald Sterling remained the owner there? What if officials in any sport stopped working games in Arizona to protest their immigration laws? What about a pro-life official who is troubled working games of a team owned by a person who gives money to support abortion rights?

I know that the media would not like such a boycott. They’d simply say “shut up, stay invisible and call the game.” But, when faced with legitimate injustice, Carey’s stand seems so much more compelling:

““Human beings take social stances, and if you’re respectful of all human beings, you have to decide what you’re going to do and why you’re going to do it.”

So officials are left with a conflict between the desire to appear impartial and the desire not to appear so impartial that they tolerate injustice. The desire to shout against injustice is difficult in a vocation where visibility is considered a negative trait.

So I admire Carey’s courage, but I am left wondering about the consequences of his understandable silence, and whether an active official is allowed to advocate for anything at all, lest such advocacy be interpreted as favoritism.

What do you all think? I’m interested in your opinions. In fact, I’m interested enough that I’m adding a poll here. Please feel free to civilly elaborate in the comments.


My children are doomed.

I took my sons, 5 and 3, to the park today. They started playing basketball, which entailed them chucking pine cones at the hoop. One of them didn’t quite make it in, and my 5-year-old son told me why.

SON: I think it’s because I shot it from the quicksand.
ME:  What?
SON:  I shot it from the quicksand. The area under the basket where a referee isn’t supposed to stand.
ME: Where did you learn that?
SON:  From the 2013-14 Officials Manual. I’ve been reading it during my naptime.
ME: What’s the quicksand?
SON: It’s the place you’re not supposed to stand because you can’t see.
ME: Do you know anything else about officiating?
SON:  Yeah. You’re not ever supposed to have two trails.
ME:  What?
SON:  Two trails is prohibited.
ME: Do you know why?
SON: Because they won’t know which is which.

Yes, this really happened. And my three-year-old son, who plays our family hallway soccer games with playing cards in his pocket so he can yellow- or red-card his brother and me, kept insisting on me running from referee position to referee position on the basketball court today, and kept asking me to call fouls on him.

It’s early, but the current trajectory says my kids are on a pace to at least consider becoming sports officials, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Wait. I do know one way I feel about that. Guilty. This video shows why.