The Lack of Accountability by Officials in Sports is Par for the Course

As replay review in sports continues to evolve, officials making the initial calls aren’t being held accountable.

Updated: March 2, 2020 • 10:30 AM ET

Sean Miller is one of the latest head coaches to be run from a game by officials.

On Saturday night, the UCLA men’s basketball team hosted Arizona at Pauley Pavilion for a critical Pac-12 matchup that had regular-season conference champion implications and tournament berth seedings on the line. Tuning in, one would expect to watch a fantastic basketball game, as is often the case when these two perennial West Coast rivals meet. But the highlight of the game wasn’t the play on the court, it was the officiating.

With a little more than 12 minutes remaining in the game, referees whistled Arizona head coach Sean Miller for his second technical foul for arguing a call, and he was promptly ejected from the game. The arena cheered at Miller’s departure, while viewers at home may have been stunned.

It wasn’t just Miller’s early exodus from the game that caused fans to scratch their heads; it seemed like the officials made some rather peculiar calls and no-calls throughout the evening. So much so that even ESPN commentators Bill Walton and Richard Jefferson couldn’t help but point it out.

Now, it isn’t uncommon for referees to make questionable calls here or there — they are human after all. But what about those times when the officials are just plain wrong? Or, those times those controversial calls have a direct impact on the outcome of a game? Much to the roaring cries and jeers of fans, coaches and players alike.

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Baseball fans have clamored for electric umpiring after the men behind the plate have consistently made incorrect calls. According to research conducted by Boston University, MLB umpires were wrong on 34,294 pitches back in 2018. That’s a lot of wrong calls. And sure, one can argue that a bad call here or there might not sway the outcome of a game. That’s probably true. Yet, how many of those calls came at critical junctures of the game? And even at other moments, the course of the at-bat can change depending on the pitch count. An 0-2 count heavily favors the pitcher, as opposed to a 1-1 count.

It took a long time before MLB instituted its current replay system (2014). In 2017, Samford University published an article stating that between 2014 and 2017, there had been 5,409 replay reviews in Major League Baseball. Of those 5,409 reviews, 2,676 were overturned (49 percent), which means in a three-year span, nearly half of all calls challenged were overturned. That makes one wonder, how many games prior to 2014 were determined by wrongfully called plays?

And it doesn’t just stop with baseball. Simply Google ‘NBA officiating and wrong calls,’ and you’ll find a bevy of articles and data covering it. In 2016, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver argued that officials get 90 percent of the calls right. Sure, that may be the case, but that also means that 10 percent of calls are wrong. Ten percent may not seem like a lot, but considering the number of calls made in an NBA game, especially at pivotal moments, a wrong call can completely alter the outcome.

Then, there’s the NFL, which has had more than its fair share of controversy. Actually, it feels like controversial calls by NFL officials is a staple of any Sunday discussion. Do I even need to bring up the 2018 Rams-Saints NFC Title Game?

Going back to the Arizona-UCLA contest, why aren’t collegiate basketball and football coaches allowed to challenge certain calls? It feels like fans at the venue and at home can watch a replay that clearly shows the call made was wrong. Yet for some reason, there are certain rules in place that dictate that certain collegiate coaches cannot challenge a play. Why?

Arguments normally heard against more replay review is that it interferes with the flow/time restraints of the game? I’m sorry, but as a fan, I would rather the officials take the extra few minutes needed to ensure that the right call was made, rather than allowing their mistake to possibly affect the game’s outcome.

Another question: Why are officials practically given immunity from coach and player criticism?

It seems that any time a player or coach who (rightfully) calls out an official on their obviously wrong call faces possible discipline. Miller was more than justified to voice his frustration at the officials after several consecutive wrongfully called fouls and no-calls.

And of course, there are those who defend poor officiating by claiming that it doesn’t affect the outcome of a game — except for the glaring fact that it absolutely does.

Listen, games get close. Leads can erode, it’s part of sports. That’s no justification for dismissing the bad calls made by officials. The no-call against Rams defender Nickell Robey-Coleman in the 2018 NFC Title Game directly impacted the outcome. Regardless of what mistakes the Saints may have made leading up to that point, or any lead that may have blown, the no-call was the difference between a three-point lead and a potential seven-point lead with roughly 90 seconds left in the game.

In basketball, players who get into foul trouble have to either sit for extended periods of time or risk fouling out of the game entirely. The number of foul calls against a player alters how they play. A player in foul trouble is restricted, because he or she can’t afford to foul out. It’s hard to argue that a team’s best scorer being forced to sit out because of foul trouble doesn’t have an impact on the game.

In baseball, a pitcher’s arm can only throw so many pitches. A few wrongfully called balls changes the sequence of pitches a pitcher will throw. Similarly, a few wrongfully called strikes changes how a hitter will approach the next pitch. A wrongfully called ball can give a batter first base rather than an out. Then, the pitcher is forced to start over with a new pitch count and batter. On top of that, he has to be attentive of the man now on first. Those pitches add up.

Officials need to be held accountable, and coaches and players should be allowed to voice their complaints openly. Leagues need to do better. They need to stop making excuses and either hold their staff to a higher standard or change the rules to allow for wrong calls to be rectified more easily.

Fans are getting frustrated, as they rightfully should be. There’s no excuse for bad officiating to determine the outcome of games. None.

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