The Point of Referees

Picture this:

It’s the last minute of the sportsing contest. Your team is losing by one rundownbasketgoal, but it looks like they will achieve their task, do the thing, and emerge in glorious victory. They are driveswingrunskating toward this victory as the competition approaches its end, when suddenly…

A penalty! Against the other team! Surely your team will be successful now!

But wait, where is the call? The flag? The arm? The review? You watch as suddenly as your team is unjustly stopped in their march, pushed away from the rundownbasketgoal, and victory slips between their fingers as the clock expires.

In misery, you take to those who will comfort you, share in your plight, bemoan the injustices of the world; but alas, in your company you have found a mole. Perhaps well intentioned, perhaps not, this mole gives the last statement you want to hear:

“But, you can’t rely on it coming down to the refs. They had so many other chances to win that game; you just can’t put yourself in that situation.”

My team just lost a game, literally less than 24 hours ago. As the game came to it’s conclusion, my Vikings scored a touchdown, and were a 2-point conversion away from tying the game, with a potential overtime to follow. But there was a false start, and suddenly a 2 yard play needed to be a 7 yard play. Then, as the play actually occurred, a penalty was missed in the failed attempt to score. And we lost.

There are so many variables that go into any sports game, but something that seems to happen almost weekly now is that a referee will miss a call with the game on the line. This has happened against my team many times (remember, less than 24 hours ago), and my team has benefitted from this many times (although it does always feel like it happens against your team more often than not). It doesn’t seem to matter the sport, either. Unfortunately for us, once that clock hits zero; once that last out is recorded; once that last lap is completed, the game is over, and the result is final.

This is perhaps the most punishing part of the whole ordeal, the finality of the loss. Sure, a rule may be changed for the future, a player may be fined, a ref may be reprimanded, but the result stays the same: another tally in the loss column.

Our first instinct, I think, is to immediately focus on the blown call. It may be because the call is fresh in our minds, or it may be something even deeper psychologically. I think that one of the few things that all humans invariably focus on is fairness; I mean, do any children need to be taught the phrase “that’s not fair”? We focus on fairness incessantly, especially in games or competition, especially when we have a vested interest in the outcome. We want a game to be refereed fairly (or to be skewed in our favor, if we’re being totally honest), and every bad call goes directly against that sense of fairness we so desire.

When it comes to game-deciding calls, I think this is the point we all want to focus on but can’t seem to articulate. We all realize that there were many different chances for our team to do something differently to be more successful and be in a different position as the end of the game approached. Listen to post-game conversations and you will hear much complaining to that effect as well. The greater point, when referring to blown calls that determine games, is that we want our refs to do better. We want the right calls to be made. With a game on the line, we want the players to determine the outcome, not the referees.

Lord knows this Viking team could have done better. A big pass play to give up a touchdown; a turnover that led to a touchdown; three field goals instead of touchdowns. We could scrutinize every play, just as the team will be doing, to find each missed opportunity that could have led to a different outcome. Even if the call had gone our way, there was no guarantee that we would have been successful on the next 2-point try, there was no guarantee that Dallas wouldn’t have scored in the last 20 seconds of regulation, and there was no guarantee we would win in overtime. All we wanted was the opportunity.

Unfortunately, moving forward, I can guarantee that games will always be influenced by referees, so long as there are human referees and human players. We can create rules for every contingency that emerges, but people will never be able to perfectly call or play a game. This does not mean that we don’t ask for the best from our refs or that we don’t make the rules to help ensure the fairness of the game. We ask for the changes and we ask for the best because of our love for the game, because we want the best game possible, even in the face of mistakes. So long as the results cannot be changed, we use what we learned in the past to make a better reality for the future.

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