A Masterclass on Heckling Referees

When referees mess up, it is up to the fans to let them know. Heckling is an art form, and when done well, it is an unparalleled power.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Sophie Poget

All sports fans have been there. The game is almost over. Your team is about to get the winning score. All the stars have aligned, and suddenly, you hear it. The whine of a whistle, the scream of an umpire, or a yellow flag on the field. Your excitement crumbles as the referee steals all the glory with a bad call. You feel anger boiling deep inside you, and you feel the need to show the ref his own stupidity. You only know of one way to express this anguish: heckling. Heckling may seem crude and insignificant, and when done improperly, it is. But when done by a true master of the craft, it is something beautiful.

Before I teach this class, we should establish some ground rules. First and foremost is understanding boundaries. A true heckler will never invoke a referee’s family or make fun of the referee’s appearance. Similarly, any sort of attack on one's race, gender, sexual orientation, or anything of the like is unacceptable. Secondly, keep it clean. There are usually children in the stands, and it is important not to cross any lines. Remember, profanity is not as funny as you may think. It comes off as obnoxious and unfunny. Lastly, know when heckling is acceptable. Don’t go to a Little League game played by your eight-year-old daughter and ask a volunteer ref if he needs to see an eye doctor. Not only is it not cool to criticize non-professionals, but it also won’t earn your team any good calls in the future.

Now, let's begin. Class is in session. Heckling comes in many forms. The first one we will explore is the stock joke. These are jokes that work in any sport in every situation. These are often overused or boring, so it is important that they are well crafted. A good stock joke should be short. The referee isn’t going to be listening for two minutes, and neither are your fellow fans. Stock jokes should also be easy to understand. The referee isn’t going to spend extra time figuring out what you meant. They need to immediately understand and be subsequently ashamed. Lastly, they should be original. Going back to the example I used earlier, every ref has been asked to go to an eye doctor millions of times. Similarly, don’t tell the ref about being blind, sleeping, or biased. These remarks have no impact, and using them only presents you as an amateur heckler at best. However, if you make a joke that implies these points, it is hilarious. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite stock jokes:

“Can I pet your seeing eye dog after the game?”

“Did they stop printing the rulebook in braille?”

“Do you take Visa or American Express?”

“Leave the gift giving to Santa!”

“If you had one more eye, you'd be a Cyclops”

Next, let’s examine specific jokes. Specific jokes are jokes that rely on events that just happened. They need to be quick and witty, making them the hardest jokes to come up with. Similar to stock jokes, these need to be short and original. However, they have the added necessity of pertaining to the sport being played. A good specific joke has two elements: a detail and a punch line. The detail is what just happened, and the punchline links to it. This link can be achieved in multiple ways. The easiest way is using a pun. For example, checks are big hits in hockey and can also be used to pay off the ref. A player can steal a base, and an umpire can steal a game. It can also be done by using a comparison. A ref could have robbed your team, like how a thief stole the ref’s eyes. Here are some of my favorite specific jokes:

“If that pitch were any lower, it would hit your IQ” (If the ump calls a strike on a low pitch—baseball)

“I was in a car crash yesterday and had less contact than that.” (If the referee misses an obvious foul, especially in basketball or soccer)

“Are you failing school because you have missed two periods?” (When a line judge misses many calls throughout the game—hockey)

Lastly, let's discuss the mother of all heckles, the long jokes. Long jokes are jokes that are repeated throughout the game and when done correctly, are by far the most effective. Long jokes need to start with the same thing every time. This repetition catches the attention of the referee and the fans. Your opening should be followed by a joke that targets something specific. If you keep it consistent, you can slowly degrade the ref into deserved nothingness. These jokes thrive on preparation. Researching jokes is simple and can be split into three parts: Identify, Remind, and Annoy. Identify is the simplest. It is easy to get the attention of a ref whose name you’ve figured out. This strategy is especially effective for referees who aren’t notable and hence don’t hear their names as frequently.

Remind is where your preparation comes in. The best long jokes often rely on bringing back something that happened in the past. Good examples of references to the past are infamously blown calls, cheating scandals, or funny mishaps. Perhaps the most notable of these was when Jim Joyce blew Armando Galarraga’s perfect game bid by missing an obvious call, when he called a runner safe on a play at first base in the ninth inning. It is perhaps the most famous miscall of the generation and can be used for many funny heckles. Another example is from a 2010 NFL playoff game, during which an incorrect call led to the refs taking away a touchdown that would have let the Pittsburgh Steelers cover the spread. This error cost bettors hundreds of millions of dollars. This call is a heckler’s dream. As some of you master students may have realized, calls like this example are easy calls to heckle. That referee, Scott Green, is now an easy target of jokes surrounding his potential bias. With that said, here is a great long joke using our example referee.

The Ghost of Galarraga:

John Johnson is at a baseball game being umpired by Joyce. He remembers Joyce’s no call and comes prepared. He brings a white sheet with arm and eye holes. He also brings a sign with Galarraga’s face on it. When he gets to the game, he puts on the sheet and holds up the sign. In the second inning, he feels like Joyce messed up a strike call. He knows from his research that Joyce was the umpire when Dallas Braden threw a perfect game. He then yells, “Jimmy, it's okay, at least you have seen a perfect game.” He sees Joyce shake his head and gets a couple chuckles from the crowd, who understands the reference. Later, he feels Joyce should have called a check swing. Feeling angry, he yells, “Jimmy, it's okay, at least you might get another attempt.” This one gets a hearty laugh as more people get the joke and appreciate it. In the ninth inning, Johnson feels like Joyce has messed up again, putting his team’s win in jeopardy. He decides to go for the kill shot: “Jimmy, don’t worry, I have never been perfect either.” The fans roar in laughter as Joyce is humiliated by Johnson.

He is a master heckler.

Johnson is the perfect example of why heckling has purveyed in the sports world to this day. He was able to safely outlet his anger, annoy the umpire, and make the game more enjoyable for other fans. I sincerely hope you can implement this aspect in your own sporting experiences, and remember, with great power comes great responsibility.