Open-Mic: The Best and the Worst of Sports Officiating

Andrew StevensCorrespondent IMay 21, 2008

On television, in front of a large crowd, a man is being berated with curses, threats of bodily harm, and accused of the gravest atrocities. He bears all of this with the stoic calm of one who is immune to criticism. Is this man a criminal on a perp walk, or perhaps a despot who once ran a rogue regime?

Neither—this man is an official from a North American sports league.

During some games, I sometimes wonder why anyone would become a sports official.  Officiating can be a thankless and difficult job, but there are some leagues with excellent and reliable officiating.  Other leagues have much catching up to do.

Looking at American sports, officials who tend to get it right the most are often umpires in Major League Baseball. Without the benefit of replay, which the National Hockey League, National Football League, and the National Basketball Association have access to, umpires have to call the strike zone (balls and strikes), safe or out on the bases, and fair or foul on batted balls. They also have to decide on home runs (fair or foul, in play or out).

These decisions have to be made in a split second (pitchers can throw up to 100mph), and in stadiums where fan interference and other distractions can mar an accurate call. When a replay is shown on television of a particular call made, more often than not the umpires got the call correct.

And what of the few calls that are missed?

For some partisans in the umpires union, this is a radioactive idea, but the use of limited instant replay would be the way to nearly perfect the officiating process in baseball. The replays wouldn't be used for balls and strikes, but for deciding whether or not a ball is a home run or stayed in the park.

The use of replay, once on the fringes of opinion in baseball circles, is gaining ground. The technology is there, so why not use it? Replay is a way to get it right in Major League Baseball, nearly every single time. It’s a win-win all around.

For sheer entertainment, little can top a well-played hockey game. Hockey is played at a blazing pace, where some players are skating into each other at speeds up to 30mph. It’s a fast, violent, exciting, emotional game. The National Hockey League fields some of the most passionate and talented athletes in the world.

Where the NHL gets it right is in use of instant replay. Whether or not a puck crossed the goal line, or if it was touched with a high stick can be reviewed by the referees. They have the benefit of using cameras all over the arena, including a camera in the net itself.

Unless a puck disappears in a scrum, NHL officials almost always are able to delineate between a goal and a miss. For this, the league deserves much credit.

In the NHL, however, there is a struggle within the triumvirate of officials, league governors, and hockey fans.

The rulebook, while clearly delineating what is a foul and what is not, has tended to not be interpreted the way it has been written. The league board of governors (not to mention the commissioner) want the rulebook strictly enforced. Fans, meanwhile, see the rulebook being interpreted as a “living document,” much like the US Constitution is claimed to be.

No one really knows how to uniformly call the game, and calls change seemingly game to game.

Over different years, different degrees of penalties are called. Some years, a slight tug or hold on a jersey is called. Other years, a player can commit a mugging on the ice and get away with it. Fans are livid about this elasticity. Either it is, or it isn’t a penalty.

This year, much to their credit, NHL officials have been more uniform, calling penalties in playoff games and even in overtimes. However, given vague rulebook interpretations, the NHL has much to improve upon regarding it’s officials on the ice. Consistency counts. Fans, no matter who they cheer for, would prefer consistency over the guessing game that rule interpretation has become.

In America, the sport that has the best television contracts, not to mention the most television revenue, is the National Football League.

This sport, as this article is being written, may have a labor issue by 2011. Pure foolishness. While being made for the television age, football is also blessed with something that hockey and baseball do not have: excellent officiating and a sensible instant replay policy.

Football is a game that moves at a pace that is almost unfathomable to average fans.

Wide receivers and cornerbacks are able to run 40-yard dashes at an eyelash over 4 seconds. Men weighing well over 300 pounds are able to get downfield and block defenders half their size. In this environment, NFL officials have to make split-second decisions on a ball in bounds, ball possession, a ball touching the ground, holding, and a variety of other potential infractions. They get the calls right, more often than not. NFL officiating is excellent and consistent.

But not everyone is right 100% of the time.

At these times, however, the league is not held back by archaic replay policies. Cameras are around the field at seemingly every angle, and there is a replay booth for a call-review.

With under two minutes to go in the half (or the game), a booth in the stadium can review a call, and coaches are given red flags with which they can “challenge” a referee’s call and have it overturned. If a coach is correct, his team gets the call. If not, the team will lose a timeout.

This officiating climate leads to responsible and accurate refereeing.

The National Football League has the best officiating and makes use of the latest technology to aid it’s officials. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball, due to it’s conservative nature, has yet to arrive to a replay. The National Hockey League, stymied by erratic rule enforcement, leaves fans angry and players scratching their heads. The officiating and rule management in these sports are clearly behind the well-run machinery that is operated in NFL.

Much needs to be done to make sports refereeing in all leagues the best that it can be. Officials in each sport have tremendous impact on the outcome of the game, whether it‘s an umpire with an inconsistent strike zone (i.e.: Eric Gregg), a botched review in a football game (see Colts-Steelers, 2006 playoffs), or inconsistent rule interpretation in hockey.

But, fans need to remember that these are human beings officiating their games, not automatons. Fans need to relax. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.