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.

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About Paul Hamann
I am a basketball referee in Washington State, working mostly high school games.

8 Responses to Mike Carey avoided Washington games for nearly a decade.

  1. josephmmurphy says:

    FYI, I voted “no” in the poll precisely because of your insightful questions above about what behavior might legitimately trigger such a response. For the record, I think Carey was right; the Washington name is offensive and he was being asked to directly participate in it. The Topeka officials were right to band against an organization which didn’t want to play by the rules. I would draw the line at on-field or in-organization behavior.

    I’m very reluctant to extend that to the cases where an official might have a problem with a team figure’s personal and political expressions. OK, some people are racist, sexist, homophobic, and dogmatic. Some people keep the lid on those impulses and still manage to be disrespectful, self-centered jerks. (I’m talking to everyone, but I’m looking at you, Mark Cuban.) Some people just disagree with you on issues you care deeply about. You and I don’t generally get to impose these filters at work; why should a ref?

    So, my “no” vote is really a vote for drawing a very tight line around the idea of “an issue related to his/her sport”. I’d agree with the statement if it were “an issue directly impacting the on-field experience of players and fans.”

  2. Paul Hamann says:

    Joe–so let’s play with that brightline. What about the Donald Sterling example above? Let’s pretend Sterling still owned the Clippers this year. I know some players were planning on forcing the issue by not playing ball for/against the Clippers if he were still there: essentially saying “if the owner doesn’t want Black people publicly showing up at his arena, I can’t in good conscience play.” Would you be okay with a team taking a forfeit instead of playing? Would you be okay with officials refusing to show up? (Is there a difference between a player boycott and an officials’ boycott, or are all participants the same under your paradigm?)

    Is this “an issue directly impacting the on-field experience”? I’d argue it’s not, but I still can’t imagine wanting to show up and ref a Sterling game.

  3. josephmmurphy says:

    I do not believe that the Sterling case, as it played out, actually affected the in-arena experience. If he’d refused to sell courtside seats to black people, I think I’d feel differently. (This isn’t to say that his behavior was acceptable, only that I understand it as personal, not corporate, behavior. Here’s where I have to admit I didn’t really pay it much attention and might be wrong on the facts.)

    Your hypothetical, though, creates an interesting smudge in the line. The on-field experience would change once you’ve got players participating in a boycott, and officials would, at that point, be faced with the question of whether to take sides. Whether the player boycott is justifiable should feature prominently in that evaluation.

    As far as the players go, I think opposing teams should suit up (or make the argument that who’s allowed in the owner’s box is a corporate, not personal, decision). I think it might be legitimate for the Clippers’ players to make a different decision. I’m in a direct relationship with my boss, and if he’s a bad person I might need to react (either to change his ways or just to protect myself). I’m not in a direct relationship with your boss, so my ability and responsibility to change his non-work behavior is lesser.

  4. josephmmurphy says:

    This is probably where I ought to think about my privilege. Not too many people out there call straight white middle-class males “less than human”, and then tell us to do business with them anyway. My Irish and Polish Catholic ancestors may have felt differently about what’s personal and what’s corporate at various times in history…

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I love this observation—so far this is straight middle-class white guys (given your self-ID and what I know about Paul and myself), and it’s worth trying to game out empathetically how this situation looks through other eyes and from other vantage points. I hope we’ll get some other voices to this space to help clarify that for us.

      Oh, and I also think you’re right on about the difference between playing a team and being on a team—a player’s relationship to their boss is much different than their relationship to an opposing team’s boss. Sports is still different than other settings, of course: as an NBA player, I make money off of the success of the teams I don’t play for in a way that a Microsoft employee is not advantaged by Apple’s success. But there’s still an important gap between “my” team and the others, and that may demand more of me, hypothetically and ethically speaking.

  5. jwrosenzweig says:

    I said yes and be vocal about it. I recognize the potential for criticism if Carey had been vocal about it, but that’s why you’re civilly disobedient, right? I mean, the point is to call attention to the fact that something that is accepted within your society is, in fact objectionable. If it means you come under fire, that’s part of what it takes to make change happen—in the words of someone wise about this kind of thing, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” Will it mean fans accuse you of bias even when you do your best? Might your esteem in the eyes of your colleagues take a hit? Yes, I think so. That’s the cost.

    For that reason, you would only ever do this if the issue mattered more than the game, more than your reputation or your livelihood. Would your assignor or supervisor or whomever be within their rights to can you? Of course they would—you’re refusing to carry out what you’re contracted to do. It’s no longer a free speech case: it’s you essentially informing your employer that they can fire you if they have to, but you’re not going to be complicit in this. That’s why the Freedom Riders didn’t just go to bus stations with signs. They—both white and black—boarded the buses, sat in the “wrong” places, and tried to go in the “wrong” waiting rooms. They had to break the law to get the country to pay attention, and some of them paid for it in blood.

    Obviously, there’s a line here, but I think it will be drawn by conviction and personal ethics. It doesn’t matter whether I think it would be justifiable for an official to boycott the Clippers while Sterling owns them. It’s up to each official to decide if it’s worth publicly refusing to ref their games—is Sterling’s conduct so offensive that they should risk getting fired? As bad as he was, I’m not sure refereeing his team’s games would feel like I was being complicit in an injustice or an evil so great that I’d risk my job and reputation for it. To me, that’s why the “yes, and get loud” option is the only one — it will self-police the potential pitfalls of this kind of choice by ensuring that only officials with a burning conviction on a topic that they are willing to take the fall for will elect to use it.

  6. Paul Hamann says:

    I wonder if a decent employer would factor in an employee’s wishes. Suppose I ran a company that sent out employees to sites to give aid (janitorial, tech support, plumbing…). I wouldn’t be required to listen if one of my employees felt like they could not work there on moral grounds (I’m thinking a pornography company, an abortion clinic, a take-the-gay-away “counseling” service, etc.). I would be within my rights to can an employee who refuses to aid or abet in any way a group that they find morally problematic–they’re essentially not doing what I ask them to do. If too many of my employees refuse to serve that company, the company will have to consider making some changes, right?

    Again, I’m not sure how this ties to the issues above. But I suspect it does if you can explain how.

    • Joe Murphy says:

      I think it ties in as a 3rd option, Paul, between ignoring something and actively working to stop it. Most people could list a set of behaviors which they don’t wish to be part of, but also tolerate from others. Mike Carey’s actions fit this category – for whatever reason, he chose not to fight the Washington team name, but he also chose to remove himself from collaborating in it. In this case, the reasonableness of the accommodation seems like the decent standard.

      (Although, by invoking “reasonable accommodations”, I’ve also raised the specter of harassment suits. One can imagine a Native American employee claiming that working a Washington game is inherently harassing to them, and at that point there would be a legal standard of reasonableness in play – on both sides.)

      There’s an interesting question when you start adding in professional codes of ethics (formal and informal). I ran into these on occasion as a librarian. A patron’s thesis may not sit well with me, but my code says to maintain objectivity and assist their intellectual inquiry. Sometimes that’s possible, and sometimes it’s not – I’ve refused to answer at least one question which I found patently offensive, and I’ve picked up tasks from colleagues who were uncomfortable with a request. You outline well above how Carey might have found himself in this zone.

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