Controversial Calls and How Controversial are They Really?

In Football by Ashley-Ann Woods2 Comments

We’ve all done it. We’ve all had some point in a game where our team got cheated, robbed or even flat out beaten by what we consider a bad call. Just ask any Clemson fan after their loss at home to Pitt last year and the first thing they will say is the bad officiating cost us on a Ben Boulware “late hit” or that the white hat was a Carolina grad (our sworn enemy) or any number of questionable calls. Dez Bryant is still wondering what a catch is or isn’t. The Detroit Lions found out in Seattle that you CAN bat a live ball into the end zone (no, you really can’t), and the Panthers this week would argue what is or isn’t intentional grounding (dude, the Saints safety doesn’t count as a Carolina receiver! Sorry Ron Rivera!)

So what’s the point? That everyone gets bad calls now and again? That there are different levels of officiating abilities? That officials are human too and make mistakes? How about all of the above.  Ultimately as much as we like to and as easy as it is to blame the officiating, an officiating crew can’t cost you the game nor shouldn’t.

I’m saying this from multiple points of view. The mom of a player, an avid fan (proud Clemson season ticket holder, and someone who sees a Saints and a Seahawks game every year), and as an official. So I’ve seen games from just about every point of view, except as a player. In the early 90s they weren’t as progressive about women in football as they are today, thanks to women like Dr. Jen Welter, Amanda Sauer, Becca Longo, and my personal hero, Sarah Thomas.

As a high school official I relish the fact that we don’t have instant replay. You get it right the first time or you can bet that you will have an angry phone call from the district office the next morning at the crack of dawn. While we don’t have officials recording every game and replaying them back in our (sometimes working) press boxes, you can be darn sure that there are at least two dozen cameras recording each and every play, between proud parents and girl/boyfriends and cell phones, to team cameras set up to review later to even documentary camera crews, that was a new one this year for me. So while we don’t have all that technology at our fingertips during the game, it sure can haunt us afterwards.  However, at the same time I do feel like because we can’t rely on technology to fix a mistake during the game,  there is more pressure to be vigilant and get it right on the field.

Now I’m not saying that college and NFL officials rely on the replays, but there’s got to be some solace in knowing that if you do screw up a call or a spot, there are at least two back up officials on the sidelines, a replay official in the press boxes and in the NFL, the head of officiating in New York City watching.  You are also working with eight man crews in both college and professional. High school runs five man crews, seven in playoffs and finals. But what is the cost of it? By using technology to such an extent to get every single call perfect, what happens to those calls that are what we would term “judgement” calls.

There are certain fouls that one would deem “judgement” calls. In my position as a line judge, the most common judgement call I have to make is pass interference, offensive (OPI) or defensive (DPI). These are some of the hardest calls to make. Neutral zone infractions, illegal formations, ineligible downfield receivers, these are much more obvious and easy to see. It’s easy to call sideline warnings when the coach is halfway out on the field. Now you do have those blatant OPI or DPI fouls where the player just tackles the other one to the ground, but more often than not it’s the most minor of details you have to evaluate in a split second. Is the defender’s head turned while he’s defending the receiver? Did the receiver push off even the tiniest bit to go up and catch the ball (great example of this would be DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins who is so sly about his push offs most of the time, but they still nail him on occasion and much more frequently this year)

It’s a game of inches, and so often it’s fouls of minute details.

So with this increased ability for the home audience with the eight or more different camera angles, the slow motion and the stop motion abilities, it is far easier to make the right call. It’s easy to forget that you are relying on five, seven or eight pairs of eyes to cover 100 yards of field, 22 players and keep the sidelines in check. That’s the main reason I can’t watch soccer. The idea that only three sets of eyes are responsible for the whole field stresses me out to no end. You don’t know how many times I’ve wished for eyes on the sides and the back of my head. 360 degree viewing would be beyond helpful, but humans are predators with eyes in the front of our heads, and are limited to that field of view. Imagine for a moment how demanding and intimidating it is to get a call right when you know that the 500 people in the stands are seeing EVERYTHING, not to mention if it’s telecast the multiple camera angles available for the armchair refs.

What about the levels of officiating? I’m referencing the concept many have that officials officiate differently at different times in the season, pre-season vs. regular season vs. playoffs. Former NFL head of officiating, Mike Pereira, was asked during the wild card games this weekend point blank if he felt that the officials tended to let the players “play” more in the playoffs. Pereira response was that while there are less flags per game in the playoffs, he believes it has to do with the players being more disciplined at this point in the season and less to do with the officials not calling what they would have called prior in the season.  Pereira and Dean Blandino have been two of the most outspoken against the NFL replay changes.

So what is my point as we head into the NFL divisional round? As easy as it may be to jump the gun and scream “bias” at the officials (I mean just google Patriots ref memes), take a spare second and think about the tools you have on screen that they do not.  The honest chances that Jerry Jones really did pay off the refs after having to swallow so many years of Tony Romo’s horrific playing and cap hits, and before you open that stream of profanity, remember that officials are human too. They make mistakes, and most of us believe that the best officiated game is the one where the fans don’t know we are there.  After you take a second to remember that, go ahead and let the profanity loose. I promise it’s nothing we haven’t heard before!