Paying the Refs


Jim Thorpe Building photo by John Jernigan

Here in Oklahoma, we take our sports seriously – very seriously. One could argue (and I agree) that we take them too seriously, but bear with me and imagine if you will that you are the parent of a high school basketball player in Oklahoma. In the course of the season you learn that many of the referees who have been calling your son’s or daughter’s games over the past few years are receiving monetary aid from parents of your team’s biggest rival. They are not receiving their actual salary or direct monetary gifts from these parents, but they have had all of their referee training and certification fees paid by these parents. These socially connected and influential parents have also assisted the refs through their extensive connections in getting into the best division in which to referee.

When you discover this extremely troubling situation, you and the parents of the other players on your team are incensed that the refs are receiving aid from parents of an opposing team. This clearly raises the concern that the refs’ decisions may be influenced, consciously or sub-consciously, by the financial and professional benefit they have gained from the parents of the rival team. As you think about it, your anger and your sense of the injustice about the situation increase. Every close call that has not gone your team’s way races through your mind, and you wonder how many of these close calls may have been influenced by what the parents of the other team have done.

You and the other parents of your team come together to decide how to handle the situation, and you agree that talking to the state athletic administrators to make a complaint and demand justice is the best course of action. To your surprise and disgust, the administrators tell you that what the parents of the rival team’s players have done is not against the rules. They inform you as long as the refs are not receiving direct payment that paying for their training and certifications and even advocating on their behalf for the best refereeing jobs are all seen as perfectly appropriate by the athletic association. The administrators let you know that you are free to do the same thing for the referees if you wish, a suggestion that seems both morally wrong to you and pragmatically impossible given that you and the other parents related to your child’s team have neither the resources nor the kinds of social connections that the parents of the rival team’s players have.

You and the other parents and all of the players on your team are livid. All the close games lost to this rival, all of the runner-up finishes, all the “so close, but not quite” moments of the last few years now seem to be part of a larger pattern.  The athletic administrators admonish you for over-reacting, and they criticize you for impugning the good character of the referees. “These refs are professionals,” you are told. “How dare you suggest that they would let the good will, generosity, and commitment of the parents of the other team who have made their training and certification possible somehow influence their calls on the court!” You remain unconvinced. It is clear to you that the system is unjust, and you are right. You and the other parents of your team decide to take your case to the court of public opinion where you believe decency and commonsense will prevail when people hear what is really going on.

Crazy, right?  – Clearly a fictional example. No self-respecting athletic association in the state of Oklahoma would ever allow the refs to receive financial benefits and professional aid in a way that would threaten the integrity of the sport, and if they did, the vast majority of the public would see this for what it is – unfair! There would be consequences – remember we take our sports seriously in Oklahoma.

Yet here in Oklahoma we have allowed a similar unjust system to remain in place in an area of our common life together where the implications are much more serious than in the context of sport. Oklahoma currently has a system in place where referees are given large sums of monetary aid and professional assistance by the very entities for which they have the responsibility of refereeing. This does not happen in our sport systems – we take sports much too seriously to allow that to happen. It happens in our Oklahoma Corporation Commission. This is the commission tasked with the responsibility of refereeing/enforcing regulations in relation to all corporate activity within the state. Some of the CEO’s/parents of some of the most powerful corporations/teams give the maximum allowable amounts of money to these commissioners/refs, and the state officials keep saying there is nothing inappropriate about this system.

The corporations/teams with the most wealth, power, and connections in the state are the oil, gas, utilities, and agricultural companies. The corporation commissioners receive more political donations from these industries than any others, but they also receive donations from other major industries they are regulating. As some people in Oklahoma are becoming aware of this situation and see the injustice, unfairness, and potential for corruption in a system that allows the refs to be paid by the people they are refereeing; they are rightly becoming upset and speaking out. Some have referred to this phenomenon as “regulatory capture.” – a situation in which the regulators are captured by the influence, connections, and wealth of the very industries they are responsible for regulating.

Those familiar with Oklahoma know that the situation with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission was even worse a few decades ago when corporations and their surrogates would pay direct bribes to commissioners to wield their influence and control. One can rightly point to the integrity and courage of one of our three current corporation commissioners, Bob Anthony, in helping to bring this corrupt practice to an end.

Now it is time to also end political donations to corporation commissioners from the corporations they are regulating. We Oklahomans would not allow such practices in our sports, and we should also not allow such practices in our government and regulatory agencies. The commissioners/refs deserve to be paid, but they should never be paid directly or indirectly by the entities they are tasked with regulating. It is clear that this system is unjust, unfair, and ripe for corruption. Those who benefit from this system will try to convince Oklahomans that there is nothing wrong. I hope we will remain unconvinced and take our case to the court of public opinion and action where hopefully decency and commonsense will prevail when people hear what is really going on.



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