Theory: Active vs. Passive Judging

We’re just past the summer, and that means we’re out of tournament season and into arguing-about-tournament-judging season. As an attorney I feel that I have some insight into one of those debates: the question of active vs. passive judging. Passive judging is often derided as an abdication of responsibility, but as with so many things we wish people wouldn’t do, it always happens for a reason. We need to understand why one might choose to employ passive judging before we can evaluate whether it was sensible in any given case to have done so.

Everyone is familiar with “active” judging; it’s what we see in professional sports. The judge (in the form of the referee) watches the game, and when someone breaks the rules he or she takes action. The players are beholden to the judge/referee’s decision as to when he or she will get involved.

“Passive” judging reverses the flow of the interaction. The players decide when to involve the judge, and judges will not take action unless and until a player asks them to. Even if a judge sees a flagrant rules violation, in passive judging scenarios he or she will do nothing absent a player’s request to step in.

Games that employ passive judging take a lot of flak, and it’s not hard to understand why. Tournaments are intended to establish who’s the best at [game], not [variant of the game where the players don’t always follow the rules]. It seems to undermine the meaning of the competition.

Furthermore, passive judging can look odd. A player does something wrong . . . and the person empowered to correct the problem does nothing. It feels as though the judge is at least implicitly condoning the behavior.

Yet, for all its faults, passive judging has one key advantage that a lawyer is well-positioned to recognize: it puts the onus to maintain the integrity of the game on the players, instead of on the judge. That hand-off has a number of benefits.

First, the company or event can use officials who might not be up to the task of active judging, but who can answer specific questions. Smaller outfits that cannot afford a thoroughgoing training program and have to rely on the volunteers they can get might consider this very important.

Second, the judges’ reduced participation means they have a less obvious impact on games and their outcomes. The spectator experience is much improved thereby; everybody hates it when a referee’s call rather than a player’s play is clearly the deciding factor in a game.

Third, the company or event and its judge program gain some insulation from bad decisions. It might seem odd to say that the oft-criticized passive judging can help protect a company’s reputation, but that’s exactly what it does. In an active judging situation, judges–and, by extension, the organization that selected them–bear some responsibility for mistakes and malfeasance. The judges, after all, were supposed to be aggressive about maintaining a proper game state. When something goes wrong during active judging, it means the judge made a mistake, and perhaps the organization did as well when it chose that person to be a judge in the first place.

By contrast, passive judging puts the weight of incorrect play on the players. Now the players are the ones who erred in not catching a problem. Whether the responsibility for monitoring the game was rightly or wrongly assigned to them, they had it, and they failed to carry it out.

It may well be that even when those advantages are placed on the scale, the benefits of active judging still outweigh them. My goal here, however, is not to say that passive judging is superior to active judging. Rather, it is simply to point out that there are reasons other than sheer laziness for implementing a passive judging system. Before criticizing a company or event for using passive judging, we have to think about why it does so, and evaluate the success or failure of the system with that in mind.


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