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After Further Review: A Different Take on Sports Officials

Imagine you are the back judge in the NCAA football national championship game. Its the fourth quarter, and there are four seconds left in the game. The team on offense has the ball 4th and 10 on the 15 yard line, and they need a touchdown to win the game because they trail by four points. The quarterback takes the snap in the shotgun formation and looks for an open receiver. He throws a pass which is headed towards a receiver on a crossing pattern near the back of end zone and just to your left. The receiver leaps for the ball and the defensive back reaches around to try and get his hand on the pass to break it up, but you see him grab the receivers arm just before the ball arrives. You throw your flag, but while you are doing that, you have to determine if the receiver maintains control of the ball, and if he gets one foot inbounds. From your vantage point you rule that he has done both so you signal a touchdown. Time expired during the play, so the game is over right? Not so fast. The play is going to be reviewed to determine if he had a foot inbounds and if he had possession. Upon review the call is reversed because it was determined that his foot came down touching the boundary even though he did have control of the ball. But the game isn't over yet. It can't end on a defensive penalty, so after the penalty mark off for the pass interference, the offense will get one final play.

Is the above scenario likely to happen? Probably not, but I have seen stranger things. The point that I am trying to make, is that there are multiple things that officials have to deal with at any given time. I'm not advocating that you shouldn't criticize officials, because it is warranted in some cases. I am a former official myself, and I can tell you from experience that it is no walk in the park, but for the most part, people become officials because they enjoy it. Yes you read that right, they enjoy it, even with all the criticism and verbal abuse they endure. For many, it becomes a passion. There are those who want to stroke their ego, but there are also those who don't need validation. Officiating is transformative for many as it was for me. I, along with many fellow officials are mild mannered individuals who don't like confrontation, but when the game starts, they transform into something totally different.

Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a college level official? For starters, it takes a lot of dedication . Countless hours of rules study and clinics, and also a little bit of luck. College officials are typically the best of the best, so they are not unqualified. The vetting process is pretty thorough, and you don't just start officiating college sports without having put in your time at the high school level. It takes years to break into the college level. Do officials miss calls or make bad calls? Sure they do, it happens. One reason is that they are simply having a bad day. It sounds ridiculous I know, but do you do things the same way everytime? Do golfers shoot the same score everytime? Do pitchers have days where they just don't have their stuff? Officials are human beings and as such they make mistakes. It's part of the game, and I can tell you that no official is exempt from making a mistake. Every official that I have ever known personally worked hard to do as good of a job as possible. When you are watching a football or basketball game on TV or in person, you have the advantage of seeing the play from above and from some distance. Officials are at ground or court level. Football officials have 22 athletes moving in different directions, and it's almost impossible to see everything that happens on every play. Basketball officials have 10 very athletic and very fast players to oversee, and there is constant movement. The most important thing for officials is to be consistent with their calls from the beginning of the game until the end of the game. By rule, in football, offensive holding could be called on every play. That isn't practical, so officials use their judgment as to what constitutes holding, and as long as they use the same methodology the whole game it's fair to both teams. Discretion is a forced necessity when it comes to game management. As for basketball, if an official starts the game by calling it tight, then it needs to stay that way for the entire game. In baseball, every umpire has a little different strike zone, but the key is to be consistent throughout the game. In football, and especially in basketball, officials have a very short window to make calls. Basketball officials don't actually think about calls so much as they just react. It's as if their eyes blow the whistle for them. That is the best way I can explain it.

I know that many fans feel like there is official bias when it comes to certain teams. I hear NC State fans all the time say that UNC or Duke get favorable calls. It seems that way sometimes, but I will say that from my experience, officials don't even see one team or the other during the game. They are concentrating on making calls no matter which teams are playing. One problem is that, as a fan, you are only looking at calls made against your team, but do you acknowledge when there is a questionable call that goes against your opponent? Some officials are better than others but that is just a fact that can't be changed. Having said that, some officials don't do well officiating certain teams, and that can be hard to explain. It could be style of play, or pace of play, but there are other factors such as atmosphere which can affect that. Also, some officials just don't have chemistry with the other officials in a particular game. That applies more to basketball as football officials usually work as crews.

It's a given that rules are black and white. At the same time, officiating is anything but. Most of the time, officials have less than two seconds to make a call, and that is particularly true of basketball. If you blow a late whistle, chances are you are going to hear about it. Officials also have coaches in their ear, and, while it's a part of the game it can be distracting. That brings me to the last thing I want to mention, and that is instant replay. It is useful in that it can correct errors, but it also disrupts the flow of the game. I'm personally not a fan of instant replay, because it can affect teams momentum. Controversial calls are part of the game, like dropped passes in football, or bad passes in basketball. From my standpoint, use of replay puts more pressure on officiating crews. Everytime a call is overturned, it puts more doubt into their heads. That can lead to officials second guessing themselves and can affect their performance. The bottom line is, that without officials there are no games. Good, bad, or ugly, they are an integral part of all sports. I'm certainly not saying to give them a pass when they make a bad call as there needs to be accountability, but the majority of time they get it right. While there are controversies, officials don't win or lose games for the most part. There has been a small percentage of missed or bad calls that have had a significant impact, but they are the exception. Like any job, bad officials get disciplined and certainly sometimes dismissed all together. Hopefully, this article will promote a better understanding of what officials experience, and what obstacles they face. Coaches, players, and officials make bad decisions from time to time, but in the end they all care about the game. The dedication of officials is often taken for granted, even though they have to adapt to the ever changing world of college athletics. It's not a perfect system, but it allows us as fans to enjoy the games that we love.



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