I was once asked to referee a Church-league basketball game. As a former bench warmer on my junior high school team, I’d spent plenty of time watching the calls and signals of dozens of actual referees. I knew a foul when I saw one, knew what it meant to travel, and had the three-second violation down pat. I was nervous about the request but could see I was needed and naively believed I could do the job. After pulling on the striped shirt and draping a whistle around my neck, I headed onto the court.
An hour later I tore off the shirt, threw down the whistle, and swore I would never referee again.
You can call me oversensitive or thin-skinned, and maybe I got what I deserved, but from the opening tipoff, it took less than a minute—precisely one whistle blow—for me to instantly and painfully internalize a sad truth that pervades all sporting competitions: nobody likes the referee.
There’s no question that I did a poor job. I made bad calls, missed other obvious violations I should have called, and generally lived up to the expectations of those who knew I was a first-timer. In retrospect, I should never have accepted the assignment. I was woefully unprepared to give the service I was trying to provide.
But even though I was not well-prepared, I was a volunteer doing a favor for virtually every person in the gymnasium. The fans and players had no right to expect professional-level work. Consequently, I felt wronged and hurt—like I had just given a gift to someone who, in turn, threw it on the ground and stomped it to pieces.
Had I been a trained and seasoned referee, I undoubtedly would have done a better job. I also wouldn’t have been nearly as traumatized by the inevitable criticism because I would have gone into the game with the confidence that comes from real knowledge and experience. Many years later, I can look back at what happened with a fair degree of objectivity. I see fault on all sides—especially my own. But while I can’t undo what happened, I can and will make sure it doesn’t happen again.
What’s all this got to do with FamilySearch arbitration? Actually, more than you might think.
Arbitration Defined and Debunked
Dictionary.com defines the word arbitrate as deciding “between opposing or contending parties or sides.” Maybe I’m stretching the analogy a bit, but in some ways I see FamilySearch arbitrators as being like referees in a sporting contest. True, the disagreements they arbitrate aren’t between indexers in a competition, and no one is trying to beat the other person to the right answer. Arbitrators work anonymously and aren’t generally subjected to the kind of public scrutiny that referees endure.
But as with actual referees, criticism and negativity toward arbitrators is out there, and even though it never reaches arbitrators directly on a batch-by-batch basis, many have weighed the general dissatisfaction voiced against arbitrators as a whole and have decided it’s safer to simply stick with indexing—if they continue to volunteer at all. For many, their angst over making wise choices between the best work of two sincere and dedicated indexers is already so high that it takes very little criticism to confirm what they already secretly, though inaccurately, fear—that they’re really not good enough to be trusted with such an important responsibility.
When that happens, everyone loses.
So how can we all appreciate arbitrators and arbitration a little more? It begins with having an accurate perception of who they are, what they do, and what the rest of us should be able to expect from them. That perception will come only if we take the time to understand arbitration better. If in the end you’re not persuaded to become an arbitrator, at least you might learn to appreciate better the challenges of their work and the value of the service they provide to the genealogical community.
– Article by Michael Judson