Surprise: Refs Aren’t Always Right

This is an issue that has been bothering me for some time.

In the age of technology, commentators and spectators have the privilege to watch a moment in sports frame-by-frame, inch-by-inch, in order to see if the officials on the field made the “right” call.

If so, the ref is given credit for getting it “right”. If not, the referee, or group of officials, are blamed for missing it.

Stop it.

This issue came to a head for me during (at this time) tonight’s Seahawks/49’ers game. A Seahawks player ran into the planted leg of the 49’ers’ punter. The flag came out, and the officials declared it “running into the kicker” rather than “roughing the kicker.” A substantial difference- “running” is a five yard penalty, while “roughing” is a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first-down.

Fox (which I hate watching sports on anyway) brings a former director of officiating and lambastes the group of officials for the five-yard penalty because it was the planted leg. A player going into the planted leg is- according to Fox’s in-house guru- always considered roughing the kicker.

When you look at the series the 49’ers played, and you look at the penalty, as a sports official myself, I think I came to the conclusion the refs did on the field- the team didn’t deserve the “roughing” call.

The cool thing about being a sports official is that penalties and fouls are at the discretion of the sports official. It’s not a foul/penalty unless its called.

So for networks like Fox (don’t get me wrong, I’m picking on Fox but broadcasters like NBC Sports, CBS, and those covering Premier League are just as guilty) to bring in experts and go according to the book, are simplifying and not giving due respect to the position of the official.

Another example: as a soccer referee, I have seen plays “worthy” to be called fouls in the penalty area. Coaches yell, players throw their hands in the air, but I- with common sentiment of other referees- leave the tic-tacky fouls alone.  In a situation where the goal keeper has an 18% chance of saving the goal, something game-changing has to happen for me to award a penalty kick.

Officials can’t win. On the flip side, if the referees were calling every single thing- everything in the book that’s a foul- Fox sports would have their guy on it explaining why officials need to cater the game and let the players play. He’d explain why rules are in place and the highest responsibility of a game official is game management.

But that’s not a sexy story. Officials coming to the “wrong” call, therefore creating a missed opportunity is the story.

And lastly, yes- sometimes officials don’t make the right calls.

Think you can do it better?


Shut up and enjoy the game.