Are Nigel Owens and Mike Dean stretching the limits of what is acceptable referee behaviour?
The function of a referee in any sport is to ensure that the rules are adhered to and to reprimand anyone who breaks them.
By fulfilling this function, they make sure the game is played as fairly as possible and that justice is served. They are not the performers, but rather the protectors of the performance itself and its stars.
When a referee does their job correctly, their contribution to the game generally isn't a talking point when the final whistle, buzzer or bell sounds. When an official finds themselves thrust into the spotlight on a regular basis, eyebrows need to be raised and discussions need to take place.
Everyone has a high opinion of Nigel Owens, and rightly so. He's an excellent official, but that's not the sole reason why he has cultivated his 'celebrity referee' status.
This just seems bang out of order https://t.co/nXrdyOwJb0
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) January 1, 2017
It's the snarky one-liners, snappy zingers and 'epic put-downs' that has seen Owens earn the adoration of a lot of people and for the most part, that's perfectly fine. He is a human being with a personality and he shouldn't have to keep that caged while he does his job.
Owens injecting a bit of humour into what he does isn't a problem, except when it becomes one. This happens when he oversteps the mark, such as when he posed that question to the substitutes during the Pro 12 clash between Scarlets and Cardiff Blues.
As he explained to SportsJOE's Colm Parkinson on Twitter, he didn't mean any disrespect by the comment, but was it his place to make it?
Even if he assumed that no offence would be taken by any of the players he addressed, it was a completely unnecessary remark that didn't add anything to the officiating.
your a GAA man yes? Maybe things in rugby are a little different than in your sport? So rest assured no disrespect was meant
— Nigel Owens MBE (@Nigelrefowens) January 3, 2017
The only result from it was that it was heralded by certain publications as a prime example of that patented b*nter that sets the game apart from all others. The glorification of this behaviour by an official sets a dangerous precedent of praising humorous sound bites over the refereeing itself, and in this instance you have to turn the finger of blame away from Owens and point it squarely towards those who encouraged it.
While there is most certainly a place for entertaining folks through sports reporting, influencers have a responsibility to not do this at the cost of the integrity of the game, or even worse, potentially affect the attitudes towards how the rules are enforced.
Then we come to the much-maligned Mike Dean. When a referee is the subject of so many vitriolic column inches you know something is seriously amiss.
Pundit said the abuse went too far https://t.co/xFt5Zs4MDs
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) January 3, 2017
We've all seen the Dean compilation videos featuring the ref throwing his hands up in the air after Spurs scored that goal, appearing to tell that West Ham player, 'Don't look at me again, or you won't be playing again' and a plethora of other incidents that saw his actions on the pitch overshadow the game that he was meant to be overseeing.
All this wouldn't matter as much if he wasn't at the centre of so many controversial decisions. When it happens a few times, you may put it down as a coincidence or bad luck, but Dean finds himself smack bang in the middle of a decision-related shitstorm far too often to attribute it to the fallacy of fate.
Following another contentious game at the weekend, the Dean stories are beginning to emerge from former players. Before Manchester United's win at West Ham Stephen Hunt called Dean out on his arrogance, in his Sunday Independent column, and admitted to walking away from conversations he had with the ref in his playing days in utter disbelief at what he had said to him.
He isn't the only one taking aim at Dean either. Pundit Niall Quinn accused Dean of enjoying being the one who sparks the controversy after his sending off of West Ham's Sofiane Feghouli for his challenge on Phil Jones of Manchester United.
While respecting the role of the referee is paramount, we must remember that like everyone else, they are flawed bags of skin, bones, blood and flesh.
Humans make mistakes, but criticism of referees shouldn't be castigated if it's warranted. When a referee begins garnering a reputation for the wrong reasons, the backlash is more than likely justified.