Referees Should Be the One Constant in Sports

Fans constantly engage in a discussion around the role of referees in sports and their impact on the game. But we need to get one thing straight...

There’s one thing on which fans of opposing teams will never agree. Within the split second it takes a professional sports official to make a call, two people can interpret it in entirely different ways. Not only that, they may argue about the decision for hours or days, especially if it’s come at the late stages of the game or had a perceived impact on the final outcome.

Arguments born out of perceived refereeing mistakes could fill an entire library over the history of sports. They have even touched some of the most important and decisive moments in world competitions. It’s a discussion that has dominated, and will continue to dominate, sports discourse for years to come.

Some leagues have taken a standoffish approach when it comes to resolving these officiating issues. Others have opened up the discussion.

The NFL has had replay reviews in place for a long time. They even allow the coaches to challenge up to three decisions if they disagree with the call on the field. In a game where stoppage is par for the course, adding an additional minute for review seemed like a no-brainer. The review process allows teams to take a better look at what’s actually happening on the field.

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The NBA has also introduced the notion of the replay but made the rules more convoluted. It isn’t a coach’s or a team’s challenge; instead, the NBA reviews calls made in the last two minutes of each half as well as harsh fouls at any point during the game. The league also sends out refereeing reports to teams. The “last two minutes” section, where referees sometimes admit to missing a call, is publicly available.

In soccer, an increasing number of ruling bodies are moving to adopt the Virtual Assistant Referee technology, or VAR. It allows an additional referee to flag a reviewable play on the pitch. At that point, the game official will pause the match to review the play. During the most recent World Cup, this led to both a controversial discussion and an astounding number of calls consistent with the rules of the game.

What all of these changes indicate is that referees, even after years of training and experience, are still human. The human eye is only so good at catching split-second moments of action. It’s only natural that even the most attentive human being might misread something that happened within a second. That’s just the nature of the game, and we’ve come to live with it.

The truth is that all these initiatives make it easier for referees to assess the situation in front of them. They offer an additional set of eyes, a second chance at getting each call right.

But then we have to have another discussion: consistency.

This entire argument is born out of a recent game-deciding incident in the NBA playoffs. Whether or not you perceive what happened on James Harden’s last shot in Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors to be a foul, you may argue this from both sides. At the time, and in the following report, the NBA did not see Draymond Green’s infraction as a foul. And it wasn’t. The NBA did, however, admit to a number of missed calls, a few of which were consistent with the final incident.

What the general discussion has come down to is that James Harden excels at drawing fouls and that, while this may work in the regular season, the referees call the game differently in the playoffs. Yes, James Harden most definitely understands the NBA rulebook very well. He knows exactly when and how to pull every single defender into an infraction. He’s smart like that. The entire Rockets playing style is built around that strategy.

But that’s not the point here. The point is that we have come to accept that referees, in one way or another, alter the way players approach games. The implication that something that may be called in the regular season, but will not be called during the playoffs, is simply asinine. And yet we hear these arguments all the time: “Oh, they just have a tighter whistle in the playoffs.”

The entire point of leagues implementing officiating changes is to make the official’s job easier. It is there to help each ref make the right call, consistent with the very rulebooks we’ve come to expect, every time. Will we agree with all of these calls? Heck no! But that’s the point of having officiating in any game.

Whether you’re presiding over a preseason friendly, a regular-season battle, or the championship game, you have a responsibility to call every single game the exact same way you have been for the entirety of your career. That’s just how sports works.

So here’s the thing.

Yes, that may not have been a foul on Draymond Green (it wasn’t). However, if the referees have committed to calling that exact play one way during the regular season, they should call it the same way in the playoffs. That’s the point of all of this technology: to get the call right every time. And in this case, they did.

Now they just have to do that exact same thing another thousand times…

Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk is a senior writer at Grandstand Central, number one Process devotee and nihilist Raptors fan who also does video production. You can send your complaints about any Celtics related articles to him directly on Twitter.


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