(RNS) As a bizarre and ungainly conference championship game staggered through its fourth quarter, San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman chased a ball fumbled by a Seattle Seahawks runner at the goal line.

Two things happened: Two players fell on top of Bowman and bent his knee inside out. And the referees blew the call.

Endless replays showed the knee’s awful bending and Bowman retaining control of the ball, even while screaming in pain. Referees awarded the fumble to Seattle, however, and we armchair types learned the odd truth that, while most plays can be reviewed with video replays, this particular type of play isn’t reviewable in the National Football League.

The blown call didn’t seem to change the game’s outcome. Seattle eventually won, and not as a result of this play. But the incident did underscore three truths about referees:

First, without referees (judges, umpires, arbiters, monitors), much of life would be a chaotic ordeal dominated by cheats, bullies, and dirty players. That’s why dictators refuse to allow election monitors, corrupt politicians defame the media who report their corruption, and bankers lobby incessantly against regulators.

Second, even with referees, action moves too fast for certainty. In baseball, even the most skilled umpires miss calls at first and enforce idiosyncratic strike zones.

Third, even-handed justice requires trust in the referee and a belief that missed calls tend to even out over time. If the referee is a cheat — as happens frequently when regulators get paid off by the regulated — trust in the game vanishes, and no one feels safe.

As money dominates our politics and partisan hacks stop at nothing to gain an advantage, trust is in shorter and shorter supply. Minorities have figured out the game is stacked against them. All the talk about equal opportunity, the poor choosing to be poor, and minorities being lazy leeches is just noise to cover up theft by the moneyed few.

The media have served an important refereeing role, but they are vulnerable now to financial pressure and to mounting mistrust of all arbiters.

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s scandal expanded, he took the misdirection tactic of blaming MSNBC for “partisan” reporting. Christie’s defenders have said, in effect, that charges of bullying aren’t credible because critics won’t say as many bad things about President Obama.

Courtroom judges are available, but they are overwhelmed by their caseload, as people who can afford a lawyer don’t accept a verdict against them. Besides, many judges were elected precisely because they promised not to be blind and even-handed in administering justice. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has a carefully manipulated ideological twist.

For a time, religion and the academy served as referees. But religion fell victim to ideological rigidity and partisan bickering, and the academy became fearful of lost funding or lowered rankings.

So we are living, for now at least, in a “Wild West” of gerrymandered voting districts, unfairly enforced laws, corrupt arbiters, and the rich getting richer by buying and tilting basic systems like courts of law and media coverage.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

This won’t end well. The balanced and gentle rhetoric of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sounds quaint and naive today, as opposing interests abandon all pretense of fairness and compromise.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)


Categories: Culture, Ethics


Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com.


  1. So, religion fell victim to ideological rigidity, did it? That sounds like a liberal’s way of saying: “We don’t like eons-old moral certainties about anything, and we’re out to change all that. After all, truth is what we want it to be; and we don’t want to pay any price to abide by it. We won’t have to because we’ll invent it ourselves, even if we have to redefine plain and simple language.”

    We’re not living “for now, at least” in gerrymandered electoral districts. We’ve been living in them for quite some time. Do you know how some of this happened? If you do, I doubt that you’d be willing to talk about some key examples of this gerrymandering.

    I’d be curious as to what you have to say about “the media” were it not for my being quite certain already about what your principle complaint is.

    If I’m wrong, I’ll quickly admit it. Something tells me, though, that none of what you have written is open for discussion, at least by you. “I have spoken. That IS discussion.”

    • My irony detector just broke. You are the example of rigidity of religion being discussed. Religion as an excuse to act and treat others badly for its own sake.

      Obvious attempts at gerrymandering and vote stealing (onerous voter ID laws) have been in the news for some time. Its been part and parcel with the GOP strategy to over-represent themselves beyond what populations of communities would rationally allow.

      As for proof of such things, my question to you is whether you understand how to use a search engine. Denial of such things is either a sign of dishonesty or ignorance of your part.

      • You’re dead wrong about your first statement, but you feel good about having written it. That suffices for you. Always has. You’re welcome to take a point I’ve made and dispute it, though. That you won’t do. Never have.

        You clearly wish to avoid the sort of gerrymandering that has produced districts a half-mile wide and snaking through half a state–in places where the residents have no problem in the first place electing minorities to office. You also seem to be unaware of the many changes made in state legislatures in the past couple elections where previously liberal districts have themselves thrown out the liberals–doing so prior to any redistricting.
        Besides, gerrymandering has been the work of both political parties. You know it. You choose only to highly GOP hijinks. You give yourself away every time, bub. Or maybe you actually don’t know it.

        Yes, I know how to use a search engine. You’ve demonstrated little ability at using them yourselves. You recently tossed up a URL that did absolutely nothing remotely to aid what you thought was an argument. I suspect local high school sophomores could do much better.

        • So you are OK with gerrymandering if it can produce a conservative majority legislatively but not if it means increased minority representation. That is your argument more or less. If you are honestly against gerrymandering in general, you would be saying something negative about the conservative actions as well. But you aren’t.

          Yes it has worked for both parties, but only one of them is really stepping up their game nowadays, the GOP. It works hand in hand with their attempts to deny 4-5% of the Democrat voting electorate through phony voter ID laws.

  2. People can’t pick up a sweater at the post office or a UPS store without a driver’s license or other form of photo ID; people need to prove ID to at least reduce the amount of voter fraud-which used to be a “progressive” issue; it was corrupt “machines” that let people vote without ID-the “progressives” wanted the rolls for voting to be checked against actual people to prevent ballot box stuffing or even voting by the dead.

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