October 20, 2008

Officially Apologize

We owe the volleyball referees an apology for all the recent rule changes. When I say 'we', I exclude myself, as I did not vote to support these rule changes and I also exempt the majority of NCAA coaches who also did not vote to support the new rules. But, somebody does owe the officials an apology.

We owe the referees an apology because we have rendered them near useless and dramatically increased the negative impact potential of any call. With the new interpretation of the ball handling rules, it would be better to have a Disney created automaton that uses an infrared eye to determine when the ball has hit the ground and thus implement the service whistle in t-minus 10 seconds. Line judges just need to have a clicker that sends information clarifying in/out/touch.

In the not too distant past, double hits were never allowed, lifts were never allowed, touching the net was never allowed and crossing the center line was never allowed. Three out of four of these key "never" components in playing the sport of volleyball have been eliminated. And one could argue, that lifts are seldom called because in setting situations, many times a lift occurs in conjunction with a double hit and since double hits are now essentially legal at all times, the double hit seems to negate the lift.

Instead of making the job of referees easier and reducing their impact upon the game, the new rules have done the opposite. Consider the old rule of double hits - the ball cannot be double contacted when setting - period! It was rather simple for the referee to call - was it a double or was it clean; just one decision for the official. Now on a setting double contact, the referee must determine was it a first contact touch, was the player making an athletic play during the contact, was it in the course of a long/exciting rally and was it in fact a double contact? What used to be a one decision call is now a multi-step process.

Because of this process, there is absolutely no consistency with ball handling calls and understandably so. An example illustrates the difficulty for the referees - In a recent NCAA match, the left back passer passed the ball up in the air and the setter called help; the ball was coming straight down on the middle back passer who did not have to take a step and attempted to set the ball to the front left attacker. The ball was grossly double hit and the opponent's players actually stopped play expecting a whistle and then hastily passed the ball over the net. When I questioned the referee about why no call, he indicated that it was a double hit and thus legal. I proceeded to argue the point that there was nothing athletic about the setting play (standing and setting), so it was illegal. He then acknowledged he was wrong, but the play cannot be re-done or negated. This shows what the referee's are trying to process and why what has occured with the rules is unfair.

A natural reaction to information overload is to shut down - to not call anything. This is becoming the all to common trend with match officiating - nothing is being called. All ball handling is being allowed, as to not make a wrong call. With regards to lifts or carries, this is plainly obvious. The stance seems to be that since a lift occurred along with a double hit, then the double hit negates the lift. The amount of 'chucks' flying around are amazing - Sometimes I feel as if I am watching bad beach volleyball setters just grab and throw the ball around. The skill of setting is quickly vanishing for the mass of college volleyball players.

The reason we have officials in sports and do not let players/coaches referee, is because the officials are supposed to be objective and learned in the rules and application of those rules. They have trained, gone to clinics, have a bunch of match experience and they get paid - honestly, they get paid a ton of money for what amounts to just over 2 hours work (including warm-up and the match); if you have a thick skin, refereeing is a great part time money maker.

The new rules have steered them into not making any calls in fear of making the wrong interpretive call. But, I would argue that human nature is to be involved. Just as a player wants to play, an referee wants to officiate, wants to blow the whistle on something other than to start serve. This has created an almost 'random' element to what is being called. Questionable contact after questionable contact is being let go, until the referee feels the need to be involved, and then something is called. This variable is very hard for players, coaches and fans to accept. It adds an element of uncertainty that nobody likes and places a significant amount of stress upon the officials.

Back in the wonderful past of volleyball, when we played sideout scoring, incorrect calls were manageable because half the time they did not result in a point. The call may not have allowed a point to be awarded, but half the time it was just a sideout. Now, every time the referee blows the whistle, a point is going to be awarded to a team. Magnify this impact in a 25 point game, versus 30 point game. As players, coaches and fans are realizing, there is a huge time difference with 5 less points. Too often, an official's call late in a game is the determining factor in winning or losing a game. This is a grossly unfair situation for all involved. Every call becomes critical and the pressure to make the correct call is huge - this is not a fair situation for the officiating crew.

I have visited with a few long time officials which I have known for years and they do not like the new rules. In effect, they feel useless. They acknowledge that they are not supposed to call anything and it is rather boring just blowing the whistle for serve and to award a point. I recently was at a Junior College tournament, and I don't know if it was these particular officials or that the NJCAA rules are different, but calls were actually made. I can't tell you how refreshing it was to see double hits and lifts called, to see players and coaches understand/support these calls and to watch good volleyball being played in which the outcome was clearly determined by the play of the participants.

NCAA Volleyball Referees - I am sorry that you have been devalued in your relationship to the game and did not vote for these changes.