O’Connell: Referees Are Officially A Problem

May 17, 2019, 12:00 PM
Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers speaks with referee Josh Tiven #58 after a play aga...
Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers speaks with referee Josh Tiven #58 after a play against the Golden State Warriors in game two of the NBA Western Conference Finals at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2019 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Most of us have been sports fans – in some form or fashion – for as long as we can remember. If you have memories of the great wins and losses that your Utes, Cougars, Aggies, or Jazz have experienced over the years, I’m willing to bet you can recall with equal clarity the times your heart was broken by a man or woman in zebra stripes.

Actually, they don’t always wear zebra stripes… You know who I’m talking about though, the sworn enemies of every sports fan – the Officials.

Referees, umpires, or judges have undoubtedly played a role in shaping your experience as a fan. Somewhere, at some time, an errant flag or ticky-tack call ruined a game for you. Maybe even a whole season. If you are – or ever were – an athlete yourself, their impact is most likely amplified significantly.

Blaming Officials

It’s probably not fair how much we blame and judge people in a tough profession who are trying to be part of the games we love. We certainly don’t give credit where it is due when they do a great job, but that’s not what anybody on either side of this equation signs up for.

Fans buy their seats expecting to take umbrage with a call or two, and referees grab their whistles expecting the irrational. So, the reality is that every single one of us knows of a time or two that we got jobbed by the refs. Most of the time we don’t actually know how the contest would have eventually played out if the missed call had been made, or if the made call had been missed.

Nonetheless, we are dead sure that if not for those accursed referees, we would have won. I can think of a half-dozen instances from my own career and another ten from watching my favorite teams.  We’ve all been there, right?

So it stands to reason that when instant replay challenges were gradually introduced to modern sport, we rejoiced. A few tweaks to the rulebook and the occasional lengthy official timeout was all it took. Instant replay corrected all of these officiating mistakes that we’d known for years (with the help of slow-motion and multiple camera angles) were obvious misses.

Since 1999, leagues and governing bodies have tinkered, developed, and re-evaluated the process of using instant replay to change calls in the interest of competitive integrity and “getting it right.” And for the most part it is right. Or closer to correct at least. Despite the odd “Tuck Rule” debacle or “completing the catch” confusion, replay has proven to be an asset in making sure that the correct winner is crowned, the rules are followed as written, and the possession arrow points where it’s supposed to.

Use Of Instant Replay

Technology improves, officials get more and more information, and make their decisions accordingly. Two decades of tweaks have brought us to a point where nearly everything is reviewable in super slow motion and high definition. And I could have sworn that it was always a good thing… Until recently I could have sworn that replay and review were improving the way our favorite games were officiated, offering peace-of-mind over the outcomes of contests to coaches, players, and fans alike.

Now I am not so sure…

In the last six months, we’ve watched some season-defining calls and missed calls. The NFC Championship game was all but decided by an egregious non-call. In that case, replay couldn’t help us.  The rulebook had no room for technology and the hindsight that it offers. No review. No flag. So the Saints got robbed and the Rams moved on.

Not just an average Sunday contest, (if there even is such a thing) this was for a trip to the Super Bowl! The officials didn’t get it right, and the myriad technological tools at their disposal did nothing but show us over and over again just how wrong they were.

Not long after, De’Andre Hunter poked the ball out of Davide Moretti’s hand in the NCAA National Championship Game with Virginia down two points and about one minute left on the clock in overtime. It’s a play you’ve seen a thousand times at every level of basketball. Offensive player dribbles past defender, defender pokes ball out, offense retains possession on the reset and inbound.

You’ve seen it so… many… times. But this time you saw it from 7 different angles in superzoom-high-definition-mega-slow-motion. Through that lens, you and I and the officials saw that Moretti’s fingertips were actually the last thing to touch the rock on its way out of bounds. Possession and crucial momentum go to Virginia, they capitalize and win the game. It’s the Cavaliers cutting down the nets. In that case the replay review ensured that every minute detail was processed and accounted for.

The refs used their on-camera resources and errant call was corrected. Yet for weeks we debated whether that correction led to the “right” outcome, or whether or not we the fans would have been better served to let it play out the way we’ve seen it so many times. (For what it’s worth, instant-replay review was not used to overturn a call of that precise nature in over 6,000 NCAA men’s basketball games last year).

The NBA playoffs saw a first round series with more debate and discussion on the merits of the way games were being officiated than the way the teams matched up. The Kentucky Derby saw a disputed result, a half-hour of replay review, and an eventual overturning of the race’s original result. For the first time in the history of America’s most iconic horse-race, the race Stewards named a winner. Officials, not competitors, crowned a winner in a Triple Crown race. Again, officials, referees, replay, determined the outcome of one of America’s iconic sporting events.

We are not yet halfway through the year and already 2019 has become the Year of the Official. Not to be left out, the Stanley Cup Playoffs decided to get in on the fun with an egregious Sharks-Blues non call that led to a game-deciding goal. Hockey fans will be talking about that one for a while. And no, replay review can’t overturn that result either.

When I started writing this column, I intended on finishing it with a definitive statement on the best way to handle officiating and replay. I realize now that I don’t have that surefire answer. I do know that the middle ground that we’ve found ourselves in – where the old familiar human error of our umpires, officials, and referees is juxtaposed over the harshly analytical efficiency of modern technology – is proving to be troublesome.

If we are going to let instant replay review decide the most important plays of our championship contests, we should probably let it help decide who ends up in those contests as well.  If we’re going to examine every outcome from every angle to make sure we got it “right,” we need to get serious about the discussion of just how “right” we want calls to be. If precision is the goal, it’s time to start phasing out human officials altogether.

Sensors and algorithms can give us the cold, maddeningly-accurate look at every shot, play, pass, and photo finish that we need to eliminate subjectivity and subconscious bias. Or maybe we need to chill out on the replays and the reviews, because they’ve put officials in the awful position of getting a call or two wrong, while the hindsight is all-too-right for every league, team, and fan to pick apart, but the rulebook doesn’t allow for rectification. Maybe the trips to the scorer’s table and sideline hood are getting to be too much, and are robbing us of some of those hard-to-grasp variables that have long fueled the fires of our sports obsessions.

I’m not sure which end of the spectrum would be better in the long run. However, I am quite sure that I do not want to see another seminal moment of my 2019 sports calendar decided by a technicality in the depths of a rulebook or a championship trophy handed out as the result of a minute infraction invisible to the naked eye. Maybe the marriage of officiating and technology is a good thing. Right now, it feels like it’s become a case of too much of a good thing.

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O’Connell: Referees Are Officially A Problem