Friday, August 8, 2014

Gil's Call: The Blame Game (Umpire Scapegoating)

Gil's Call is the monthly column or publisher's memo featured in The Left Field Corner newsletter. The August 2014 edition of TLFC is on its way—we're just waiting for one Appeals Board case [Ejection 144: Quinn Wolcott (4; Joe Maddon)] to wrap up—so while we wait, I present August's edition of Gil's Call in which I tackle the issue of scapegoating and blaming umpires, which has become somewhat prevalent, especially in this era of Replay Review and a troubling recent tendency some broadcasters have displayed of making AAA call-ups targets for their venting.

Gil's Call: The Blame Game
Thinking about the Psychology of Scapegoating and Ejections

The 2014 season has brought significant changes into our game at the MLB level, with Replay Review, Rule 7.13 and the influx of MiLB Call-Up assignments most notable among them.
Each of these changes has produced certain thoughts allowing fans and analysts to jump to conclusions about their perceptions of the true state of umpiring in baseball.

My work in the realm of psychology and cognitive distortions has taken me from the standard early fare of Freud and Jung through the more recent (and unconventional) works of names like Winch, Tennov and (Katie) Mitchell and past the phenomenon known as scapegoat theory.

For instance, it doesn’t take much insight to understand that people—much less umpire—blaming or scapegoating is a common strategy employed by a subject—in our sport, by players, coaches, managers and some broadcasters—to shirk personal (or team) responsibility for an undesirable outcome for the person (or team).

The medical definition of this term is similar: “Scapegoating is a process in which the mechanisms of projection or displacement are utilized in focusing feelings of aggression, hostility, frustration, etc., upon another individual or group; the amount of blame being unwarranted.”

We project our negative emotions onto others who in turn become a scapegoat in order to avoid the psychological stress of dealing with our own problems. This is a Level 2, or immature, Freudian defense mechanism. Similar is the defense mechanism of displacement, wherein we refocus ire or other negative emotion onto a subject who is not the actual cause of this emotion, often because it is easier to victimize an innocent bystander than to confront a person to whom we bear responsibility.

2013-EJ-67: Bautista argues pitch #1, a strike.
They key difference is that projection deals with the outward focus of issues of the self while displacement is the transference of issues pertaining to or feelings towards a third party wherein such transference is more acceptable than directly confronting the responsible party.

For instance, “I don’t trust umpires [or any other class of people]” is a belief in which the subject has projected feelings of conviction and lack of self-confidence onto an entire group, which includes people the subject has never before met or even someone the subject is presently holding as a confidant for said venting. As officials, we are right to want to say, "Coach, you must forget who you're talking to. I'm one of those very umpires whose judgment and/or rules knowledge you don't trust...yet you're talking to me about it. When you put down a group of people of which I am a member, why do you think I'll sympathize with your irrational complaint?"

Comic: A Freudian Slide
In reality, this is rarely a bona fide admonishment of such class or individual; instead, it is the psychological projection of the self's unpleasant thoughts and feelings onto “others,” who then become scapegoat(s) for the subject’s own problems.

When the subject says, “I don’t trust umpires' judgment,” the subject really means, “I don’t trust my own judgment.” Accordingly, "I don't trust [class of people]" becomes "I don't trust myself." We mask with projection because of a conditioned response to preserve our sense of self and internalized paradigm, even when our paradigm is inherently inaccurate, outdated or harmful.

The trust here usually refers to knowledge of a particular rule. For instance, a call regarding the aforementioned home plate collision rule might lead to a scapegoating situation simply because the player, coach, or fan simply doesn't know the intricacies of the rule, and, combining this with an unacceptable result (e.g., "I don't know the totality of this rule AND as a result of a play concerning this rule, the other team scored to force extra innings and/or win the game"), the natural inclination is to blame the umpire.

Umpires are expected to maintain rule mastery.
Yet umpires have a full-time job studying the rules, applying the rules, analyzing plays, and doing whatever it takes to get the call right. Combine this with the Instant Replay procedure - which slows play down and grants umpires (or referees in NBA, NFL, and NHL) the opportunity to use the depth of their rules expertise to methodically dissect a complex, close, and controversial play, and take their time to fairly adjudicate it.

Yet sometimes, players or fans may be blinded by their team loyalty and thirst for winning to such a degree that they might decry a "this umpire hates us," or even more extreme, "the league is conspiring against us" mentality, such that every perceived slight from the point this thought first enters the subject's mind serves only as confirmation that, yeah, there must be a conspiracy against one's chosen team.

It is not surprising, therefore, that those with narcissistic traits (such as many "star" athletes and the like) are masters of projection. Of course they are skilled at projecting onto others—they use this defense mechanism all the time! In sports psychology, this isn't necessarily a bad thing for the players, as this line of thinking has the propensity to provide that edge or extra grit to overcome adversity and bolster performance.

Surely it can't always be someone else's fault.
Call scapegoating a "necessary evil," as it just might produce this psychological boost for a team under the right circumstances. The problem, naturally, is that fans, who have absolutely no control over the team's performance, also employ the technique for no other reason than to shield themselves from an undesirable result.

If this conclusion sounds far-fetched, just think about the last fan you encountered talk about a "conspiracy" the league or a certain official has against their team. See: modern conspiracy theorists.

Thus, when “class of people” becomes “umpires,” playing field scapegoating produces frustration, venting and, sometimes, a crossing of the Rule 9.01(d) line, leading to disciplinary action such as ejection.

A pitcher expelled for intentionally throwing at the batter who steps to the plate directly following a teammate who hit a home run, as in Rule 8.02(d), is displaying the displacement defense mechanism.

In the broadcast booth, scapegoating becomes much more evident, for the viewing audience can hear the broadcasters’ frustration. As broadcasters attempt to justify their “umpires are bad” argument, their cases often begin to break down. The longer the on-field argument, the less cogent the broadcast transcript.

Is sports culture normalizing umpire abuse?
Take this Ron Darling transcript and identify the defense mechanism: “It’s a joke…Who cares if you take any kind of jawing…There’s no reason that, as a young umpire, you can’t take a little bit from the bench. That’s how it goes, man up.”

On the field, the young umpire Ben May had warned Mets Manager Terry Collins and, in response, Collins’ argument grew louder and more unsportsmanlike. Rules 9.01(d) and 9.02(a) all but mandated the subsequent ejection: “No player, manager, coach or substitute shall object to any such judgment decisions.” Especially balls and strikes. Especially when the argument is prolonged.

Answer: Displacement. Darling's ire is at "the bench," not at the umpire for enforcing a rule.

Or nearly every ejection for arguing a Replay Review decision. At a young age when we all adopt an ego-centric view of the world with great fear of abandonment, children will often act out and act up just to draw attention, for with limited experience, the child’s paradigm holds that any attention is good attention for it means, “I am not being abandoned.”

2014-EJ-111: Gibbons argues a replay decision.
So too does a manager regress (another defense mechanism), throwing a tantrum after a call that doesn’t go his team’s way. Furthermore, it shows his team that he isn’t abandoning them (though by being exiled to the locker room, he is technically doing just that…it’s just the scapegoated umpire’s fault that he can’t be on the bench, not his).

So when Yunel Escobar made a spectacle of himself after being ejected arguing Bill Welke’s strike one call, he spiked his helmet and threw his bat, yelling repeatedly to draw attention to himself and the perceived transgressions of the umpire, lest anyone question why Escobar didn’t (a) swing at the first pitch or (b) stick around for strikes two and three. (Regression)

For after all, it is never our own fault; it’s always some other person or class of people. Blame the umpire!



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