In the sports world, three strikes means you’re out. But when it comes to officials, one bad call means removal in the eyes of spectators.
Whenever a referee makes – or misses – a controversial call, fans are outraged. Entire stadiums erupt in boos and expletives. Those watching from their homes scream at their televisions. Umpires all over the world receive criticism daily for their decisions, but that doesn’t change the call that was made.
It’s easy to make a call on a game from the comfort of a couch, where fans can see every play with multiple camera angles. It’s not so easy on the field in the heat of the moment. Although professional referees often have access to replay equipment, it is rarely utilized – there simply is not enough time to analyze every play, and the backlash for rescinding a call is often equal to or greater than the controversial call in the first place.
However, the issue shouldn’t be the fact that mistakes are made; there has never been a referee who has called a game without any mistakes. Referees, like everyone, are human – flaws are to be expected. They go through months, sometimes years, of training to ensure that they know their respective sports inside and out. The National Football League (NFL) draws from former players, as well as long-standing high school and college level officials, to make up their officiating staff, and all potential candidates must go through a full season of preparation with the League to evaluate whether they are fit for the job. But no matter how well-trained they are, they still have only seconds to make a decision. Though frustration with botched calls is understandable, fans need to be more understanding too.
Having experience as an umpire, I can testify to the fact that spectator outrage is not limited to the Super Bowl; it can even be found at a first grader’s tee ball game . For two years, I worked for a youth baseball program umpiring first and second graders’ baseball games. Even at that age, I would get pushback – parents yelled at me, coaches claimed I was biased – all for a game where the players could barely hold the bats they were using. At one point, a coach delayed a game to yell at me about my strike zone because the pitch before was clearly a strike. The pitch he was complaining about happened to cross the plate six inches above the batter’s head. I didn’t have an ulterior motive; I just wanted to call a fair game.
Behind the scenes, groups of all levels intentionally work to avoid putting umpires on games where they would show any favoritism. When I was an umpire, I was prohibited from officiating games I might care about, and we were all held to ethics standards, the breaking of which was a fireable offense. If this is true for tee-ball, it’s absolutely true for upper level sports. An official shouldn’t care who wins the game; they’re there to ensure everybody follows the rules and stays safe. Instead, the bias comes from the fans. Though there are some instances of referee corruption, they are very rare; in Major League Baseball, there has only been one recorded instance of attempted bribery, and the umpire involved turned the money down. In the NFL, though there is often controversy about botched calls, there has never been a referee corruption scandal. More often, fans perceive rulings to be unfair because they’re not to their benefit.
Complaining about this does nothing. If an official knows the call is close and is unsure about the ruling, they will work to ensure the correct decision is made, either by consulting replays or by discussing with their coworkers, and sometimes, there is nothing that can be done. After a call is made, sometimes officials’ hands are tied due to rules, even if they know their call is wrong.
Umpires aren’t out to get teams; there’s no benefit in that. Instead, spectators need to reevaluate how they look at the situation; no matter what call is made, one side is going to be unhappy. And in the meantime, let the officials do their job