It is a basic expectation of sports fans, managers, organizations, and officials that a high-quality game umpire or referee is unbiased to the outcome of matches and to the participants. Their only bias should be toward the accurate application of the rules.
But then we have big scandals such as the one involving former NBA referee Tim Donaghy who used his on-court influence to affect the outcomes of basketball games in the name of gambling. With such a scandal rocking a major sport, you’d think that the other leagues would be more careful about identifying the ideal talent to provide such accurate and unbiased game officiating.
The NFL has locked out the NFL Referees Association members due to the lack of a collective bargaining agreement between the union and the league (the old one expired in June and a new one has not been put in place, I believe). As a result, the NFL has resorted to using replacement referees who are not part of the NFL Referees Association union – some are taken from the college ranks, and some are simply hired in off the street (provided they qualify and are capable).
Unfortunately, one of those replacement referees fell short in that basic expectation of lack of bias towards particular teams but slipped through the cracks one day before he was to officiate a game for his favorite NFL team.
Meet Brian Stropolo. He is an NFL replacement referee, and was scheduled to officiate Sunday’s game between the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints. According to ESPN, the league was alerted to his strong NFL team allegiances based on photos he posted on his Facebook account. Based on these images, it’s pretty clear he’s a big Saints fan. Upon learning of his allegiances and perceived biases, the league pulled him from officiating the Saints game (they replaced him with a backup referee who travels with the officiating crew) to eliminate potential impropriety.
Stropolo, who is from New Orleans area and lists himself on Facebook as an NFL side judge, posted pictures of himself in Saints gear tailgating at an Aug. 25 preseason game. Stropolo did not work the game against the (Houston) Texans (the Saints’ opponent in that preseason game), but he was assigned to Sunday’s game in Carolina. There were several photos of Stropolo in Saints gear on his Facebook page.
However, how did he get to become an NFL referee in the first place? His bias towards a certain team could also be associated with unfair bias against other teams, and if he officiates any of those games he could wrongly influence the games’ outcomes.
What’s disappointing about this is that the NFL stated that the replacement referees go through the same level of background checks as regular referees. If that’s the case, would perceived team allegiances be a pretty integral part of that background check for this type of role? How did he slip through the cracks?
It seems to me that such a big quality check failure could have burned the NFL big time.