Innovation/Global Risk

Make Meaning: When the Ref Is the Story (1)

By Shlomo  Maital  


 Mark Halsey

Football writer Rob Hughes (Global New York Times) covers his beat like a blanket. He is the only sports writer I know who finds the main story behind a fierce FA Cup rivalry in England, between Liverpool and Manchester,  in the referee, Mark Halsey.

    Halsey refereed Saturday’s match between Liverpool and Manchester, when Liverpool defeated nearby Manchester 2-1 and knocked United out of the FA Cup running.  This was an explosive match, scheduled to be played mid-day under heavy police surveillance. The reason: A complaint by Manchester captain Patrice Evra, that Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez used a racial epithet against him (related to the Spanish word for ‘black’), brought Suarez and 8-game suspension.  As a result, Liverpudlian fans booed Evra each time he handled the ball.  Suarez himself claims the epithet is widely used in Latin America, as a fond nickname. 

    “Mark Halsey gave a near-faultless display in a match of the kind that often unsettles the best of arbiters. He controlled the fierce exchanges, he ignored the baying fans, he called every contentious issue accurately,” wrote Hughes.

    This is amazing, for two reasons. First, Halsey is 50 years old.  In a top-level professional soccer match, players run an average of 7-10 kms.  Referees run far more, because they need to be where the play is, at both ends.  Halsey is fit as a fiddle.  Second, Halsey learned in 2009 that he had throat cancer.  He underwent chemotherapy and got thousands of letters from all over the world. (Ill referees are beloved; active ones are universally hated, that’s life). 

    Halsey found meaning in life in what he does – referee games with skill, professionalism, fairness and quick decisiveness.  His refereeing  helped make the game a memorable one, with United holding the upper hand, but Liverpool stealing a late goal to win.  I’m certain the fact he aspired to return to the field helped his recovery from cancer. 

    It is a fact that people who are optimistic live longer and live better.  Finding meaning – the answer to the question, why were we placed here on earth? – powerfully enables us to overcome the worst of times, and make the most of the best of times.   With incredibly highly paid athletes on the pitch, Hughes writes, “transcending all the sport and all the foreboding (about the game) was the performance of one man” – not the striker, or goalie, or defender, but the referee!   Kudos to Mark Halsey. And kudos to Rob Hughes, who finds great stories about meaning in dark corners.