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Bad NFL officiating leads to fan mistrust

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They’re changing games, and people are noticing

Kansas City Chiefs v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Jokes about umpires, referees, and other game officials in all sports abound. I remember the first baseball umpire joke I ever read as a kid:

Following a called strike that a batter thought was particularly egregious, the hitter turned to the umpire behind the plate, named Moriarty, and asked him to spell his name. The umpire, slightly bemused, did as he was asked. “That’s what I thought,” said the aggrieved batsman. “Moriarty with one eye.”

Skip Bayless said recently that Jerry Jones believes that the mistakes made by officials are good for the game because it gives people something to talk about the next day. You know the old maxim, ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity.’

I’m old enough that my fandom pre-dates the use of instant replay in the officiating process. When I was a kid, we used to ask the question — why can’t we use instant replay to fix bad calls on the field that are immediately known to every fan watching TV across America and around the world? There were arguments against the use of instant replay, of course, but eventually the seeming sheer common sense of it all won out and instant replay was adopted.

The result, over the long haul, has been to create a system where every single call on the field is second-guessed whether it is reviewable or not. Back in the day, bad calls were considered “part of the game” and most players and fans rationalized that they would “even out”, with some going against you, but others in your favor. We were a bit fatalistic back then; an official’s ruling couldn’t be changed, so there was no reason to keep bitching about it.

Nowadays, that fatalistic acceptance of the fallibility of game officials is gone. Fans expect the technology to make officials mistake-proof — or at least they expect mistakes to be corrected. Interestingly, there seems to be a bit of a ‘big brother’ effect at play, where the officials — knowing that the eye in the sky is there, always watching and always questioning — seem less confident than officials were in bygone days. They call games more tenuously; they have conferences ahead of every penalty call; they don’t blow whistles when a play is dead for fear of taking the replay review out of play.

The result is that officials are getting worse, games are getting more unwatchable, and fans are getting suspicious.

The NFL is a multi-billion dollar industry, and gambling is becoming more legal, more mainstream, and more openly discussed. Bad calls by officials have always raised objections of a ‘home job’ or some other bias, but with the intense focus of instant replay and the expansion of the red-flag opportunities for coaches, we are now seeing mistakes by on-field officials magnified. This happens every time replay officials either fail or refuse to change calls that viewers at home know were “blown” by the guys in the striped shirts.

Bad calls change games. Some change the outcome in terms of wins & losses. A recent Lions divisional game against the Packers featured two dicey hands-to-the-face calls and some questionable pass interference calls/non-calls that all seemed to favor Green Bay.

Drives were extended, points were scored, and the Packers came back to win a game that they probably would have lost had the bad calls — highlighted by the TV crew and Twitter — not been made. The Packers’ win and Lions’ loss may well end up putting Green Bay into the playoffs at the end of the season while keeping Detroit out.

Last year, it was the Packers took an early blow to their playoff chances due to a bad call by the officials. In a Week 2 game against the Vikings, the Pack came up with a game-winning play on defense, only to see it wiped out by a roughing the passer penalty on Clay Matthews that should never have been called. Instead of a Packers win, the game ended up in a tie. The Packers never recovered, and finished the ‘18 season out of the playoffs.

But the issue isn’t just the outcome of games; after all, there aren’t that many game-changing bad calls. In this age of legalized betting and widely publicized point spreads, a penalty that adds or subtracts points that change the betting outcome due to a team covering or not covering the spread, a yellow flag on the field that either kills or extends a drive — especially late in the 4th quarter — can swing millions of dollars in gambling wins or losses to the other side of the ledger.

There is so much money on the line with the constant expansion in the amount of money being legally bet that some fans find it easy to wonder if the officials are motivated by more than mere lack of competence.

In this week’s SB Nation FanPulse survey, more than 75% of respondents said that they are not confident that NFL games are officiated fairly.

That’s disturbing!

For a sport to survive and thrive, a basic requirement is that fans of the sport must perceive that fairness is at the heart of the rules and enforcement. When three quarters of fans believe that the officials — whether deliberately or through lack of competence — are not doing their jobs correctly, that is a huge problem.


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NFL officials are under greater scrutiny than ever before, and the development of the replay rules over the past few decades has made it harder and harder for on-field officials to do their jobs with confidence.

At a time when the NFL is devoting around $8 billion per year to players’ salaries and benefits, the league still does not employ full time officials.

The problems with NFL officiating are numerous, the potential solutions are not simple, and the league seems surprisingly slow to react meaningfully to this very real threat to the game.

There’s every reason to believe that the problem will continue to fester. Television will continue to show viewers the errors; Twitter will continue to multiply the message and drive it home; the expansion of legalized gambling will drive increasing levels of suspicion, and NFL officiating will become more stressful while the officials become increasingly tenuous with their decisions.

Every NFL fan knows Al Riveron’s name and has an opinion about him. That’s a shame. Al Riveron should be one of the most anonymous men in America.

Officials, including those “in New York”, are far too much at the forefront of the game.

Until we get back to the days when no one knew the names of the officials, and the days when Riveron didn’t have to take to Twitter within minutes to “explain” what just happened, NFL officiating is going to continue to be under the microscope, and fan confidence in the basic fairness of the game is going to continue to erode.


If you’d like to add your voice to that of other Redskins fans via the FanPulse weekly surveys, simply click here to sign up. We want to hear your opinions!