Earlier this week, Major League Baseball suspended umpire Bob Davidson for one game, citing his "repeated violations of the Office of the Commissioner's standards for situation handling." That's all the statement said. No further elaboration on which situations were mishandled, when or how. Although Davidson is known to have a quick temper and has mishandled dozens and dozens of game situations, it appears his vulgar, curse-laden tirade at Phillies manager Charlie Manuel on Tuesday was the last straw. Well, we can only hope that MLB acted after seeing this:
Davidson's suspension, and the accompanying public statement from the Commissioner's office, is a rarity in baseball. Indeed, we were unable to find another other instance when the Commissioner publicly suspended or fined an umpire for his on-field conduct. Before Davidson's suspension, the closest we came to a public reprimand for umpires was last season, when MLB split-up the umpiring duo of Joe West and Angel Hernandez. West and Hernandez have been voted by players time and again as two of the worst umpires in baseball. But they've never missed a game or otherwise been publicly disciplined for their on-field antics.
In this way, baseball is no different than the three other major professional sports. Each sport has its share of umpires and referees who repeatedly make bad calls, or quickly lose their temper, or inappropriately inject themselves into the game action. But no matter how egregious and counterproductive their conduct or how many players and coaches complain, very little is done to rein them in.
We found only one instance where the NBA suspended a referee for acting inappropriately toward a player during a game. NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended Joey Crawford in April 2007 for the remainder of the season, for aggressive conduct toward Tim Duncan during a game. Crawford ejected Duncan after imposing two technical fouls on the San Antonio Spurs center for laughing while sitting on the bench. It looked like this:
Commissioner Stern issued a statement when he suspended Crawford, referring to similar prior acts by the official to justify the suspension for the remainder of the season. In that way, it read much like MLB's statement accompanying Davidson's suspension, except Davidson was suspended for just one game, while Crawford had to sit out the final weeks of the regular season and the NBA playoffs.
We found no instances where the NFL or the NHL suspended, fined or otherwise publicly reprimanded referees for on-field misjudgments or misconduct.
To be sure, umpires and referees have been suspended and fired for engaging in illegal conduct, whether on or off the field. In 1990, National League President Bill White forced umpire Bob Engel to take an "expected leave of absence" after Engel was arrested for shoplifting several boxes of baseball cards. In 2007, NBA referee Tim Donaghy resigned in the face of a federal investigation into his participation in a gambling ring. Donaghy later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to fifteen months in prison. And the NHL pulled veteran linesman Steve Miller off playoff officiating duty in 2011 when questions arose about his role in the disappearance of the puck that gave the Chicago Blackhawks their clinching victory in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010.
Quality, unbiased and consistent officiating is important to maintaining the integrity of professional sports. The leagues can and should do more to remove incompetent and inappropriate officials from the field of play. Major League Baseball took a baby step with the Davidson suspension. It is, hopefully, a sign of things to come.