Referees shoulder an unfair load of the blame

I’m not one to rush to the defense of a referee. In high school, as a catcher, I experienced my fair share of bad calls, questionable strike zones, and umpires who were trying to attract more attention than they deserved. But this tendency to blame referees is starting to get out of hand.

In Sports pages across the nation, NFL referees are getting a bad rap for blowing big calls in the Super Bowl. The part-time referees are to blame, the columnists argue. The Super Bowl was fixed. The NFL wanted the Steelers and Jerome Bettis to win, Seattle Seahawks fans say.

Not that blaming the refs for a team’s on-field failures is anything new. The NBA referees have been called everything from inept to incompetent to blind, the old classic. NFL referees routinely come under scrutiny this time of year as they have been accused of idol-worshipping Patriots QB Tom Brady year after year.

And, as this is a baseball blog, I would be remiss to neglect Doug Eddings, A.J. Pierzynski, and the phantom dropped third strike from a pivotal game 2 of the 2005 American League Championship Series.

Everywhere, it seems, umpires are the scapegoats for losses. Costly plays are magnified and overanalyzed. Bad calls are replayed to no end, and sports talk radio hosts roast these umpires and referees alive.

Umpires have become victims of technology that has surpassed human capabilities, and it’s not fair to them. During a game, an umpire does not have the luxury of super-slow-mo TIVO’d instant replays. They have to decide in a split second or two whether or not the ball hit the ground, whether or not the receiver made enough contact with the defender to prevent the defender from getting to a pass, whether or not the pitch was inside or outside, high or low.

Meanwhile, the rest of us sit at home and are inundated with graphics and flashy videos. FOX slows down their centerfield camera angle to show us that, well, maybe the ball hit the ground and maybe it didn’t. ABC shows us that, well, maybe Ben Roethlisberger crossed the goal line and maybe he didn’t. But we can’t come to that conclusion until after watching the same shot 10 times and slowed down so that Tim McCarver or John Madden can give us a frame-by-frame analysis of the questionable call.

As armchair referees, sports fans have been exposed to the magnified failings of referees. Forty years ago, we might have had an idea that the referees had messed up. Did that ball hit the ground? Who knows? The TV feed was live and replay technology was in its development stages. But with the arrival of the computer age, replay technology allows viewers at home to see beyond the immediate action on the field.

Some sports have decided to take full advantage of the technology. The NFL allows for reviews. Although, the Roethlisberger touchdown this week and the Troy Polamalu overturned interception two weeks ago make me wonder if the technology is really improving officiating. Other sports, like baseball, do not make use of replay. The umpires, league officials say, have always had the last word on the field, and that tradition stands.

In my opinion, replay technology is slowly become an evil in the world of sports. It allows fans to blame something other than their team’s poor play for a loss. Did bad officiating lead Seattle to a botched set of downs with one minute left in the first half on Sunday? Did bad officiating lead to poor clock management with 30 seconds left in the game? Did bad officiating lead to a punt attempt on fourth down and six minutes left in the game?

Unless Mike Holmgren was reffing the game and trying to coach at the same time, the answers to those questions are no.

It doesn’t stop with Sunday either. A bad call in Chicago in October may have cost the Angels game 2 of the ALCS, but they then went on to lose three more games in a row. That one bad call couldn’t have cost them the series as fans of the time tried to say.

Replay technology is tricky business. It can undermine the authority of those charged with making calls on the field, but it can also make fans forget that their teams are fallible. It is a technology that could improves sports, but so far, no one has quite figured out how to implement it successfully.

Blame the refs for making bad calls, but the teams on the field have much more of an impact on the games’ outcomes than do the officials.

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3 Responses to “Referees shoulder an unfair load of the blame”


  1. 1 sagelaw February 8, 2006 at 12:45 am

    Nice post. Although it should come as no surprise that sports fans blame the officials. When it comes to your beloved team, its easier to blame ANYONE for failures than to accept that your team sucks. Jeffrey Maier in New York (Red Sox fans still hold that grudge) — Steve Bartman in Chicago (or even that darn goat for that matter) — anyone is fair game, not just the officials.

  2. 2 Scot February 8, 2006 at 8:36 am

    In Minnesota we are all “victims” of fly-over bias -referees/league officials/networks want east and west coast teams to succeed, so any Minnesota sports team is subject to bad calls and whatever else “they” can do to keep Minnesota down. It’s a convienent conspiracy in that a Minnesota team never really loses on their own, rather forces external to the game itself cause them to fail (no word on how the White Sox overcame this to win last year).

    What’s also nice is that any play/game can be used as evidence of said conspiracy. Even calls in favor of the home team are part of the broad conspiracy against the local sports scene.

  3. 3 Lee "Baby" Sims February 8, 2006 at 2:20 pm

    I feel like the NFL and the NBA have both set it’s refs up to fail. In the NFL, the replay system dilutes the ref’s authority on the field, as you stated, and also in the process makes them indecisive, institutionalizes second-guessing, and creates the expectation of perfection, which by its very nature is different for everyone watching and participating in the game.

    In the NBA, the three referee system prevents the refs from really controlling the game. The old schoolers like Mendy Rudolph asserted their authority and their personality into the game, which is impossible now. You might hate an individual ref in the old days, but that just made the rest shine in comparison. Now you don’t know who is who so you smear the whole guild.

    I love Holmgren’s moaning and complaining about the referees screwing up. They weren’t the only ones. Heal thyself chubby.


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