The Myth of the Perfectly Officiated Game

Better replay technology and refereeing rules don’t necessarily make sports any less messy—or fair.


For just about as long as there have been sports and people in charge of enforcing the rules of those sports, fans have wanted better officiating. The missed call is the common enemy of rivals, an inevitable frustration to anyone watching any team. Referees are the recipients of a little sympathy—it’s impossibly hard, after all, to keep a constant eye on a spread of world-class athletes schooled in every sort of deceit—and a lot of scorn. It’s generally been agreed upon that any measure that could tamp down their fallibility a little bit would be for the better.

In recent years, more and more of those measures have been enacted. Instant-replay review has become a fixture across major sports, at increasing levels of sophistication. Where leagues once had each game’s referees or umpires amble over to a sideline monitor and review a play themselves, they now have offsite replay centers set up to, theoretically, shorten the lull. Rules have been revised and re-revised to whittle away old vagueness. Certain problems have been solved. Basketball fans no longer have to worry that the wrong team will win because an official didn’t see a shooter’s foot crossing the three-point line, and baseball fans can rest assured that a ball that bounces well outside of the foul line won’t, ultimately, be called fair.

Still, pushback against this age of enhanced officiating has started. Some criticisms center on the degree of scrutiny; plays that once wouldn’t have been given a second thought are now subject to being pored over frame by frame. Others focus on a slowing of pace and the loss of some intangible element. Meg Rowley of Baseball Prospectus, in a recent piece on the increasing hair-splitting of replay in baseball, wrote, “We understood what replay was for: to right injustices. To overturn the big failures, not bog the game down in administrative law ... But the super slo-mo rendering of a foot coming off the bag is too much for our brains to handle.” Jay Caspian Kang of The New York Times Magazine, in his own essay on the drawbacks of replay, wrote about missing the old scapegoat: “Nobody wants to lose the edifying and necessary knowledge that in the aftermath of a crushing defeat there is always someone else to blame.”

Almost every argument for or against replay, or any other measure designed to produce a fairer sport, acknowledges a tradeoff. In exchange for a game played closer to the rules, the formula goes, we sacrifice pace or immediacy or peripheral charm. As leagues try to tighten more loose bolts, though, new questions have come up about the strategies’ ability to perform their assigned functions in the first place. The pursuit of a perfectly called game may not be merely inconvenient, but it may also be fundamentally impossible—and trying to get there may do more harm than good.

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In the second game of a recent NBA playoff game between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, with the Thunder leading by one and inbounding the ball with seconds remaining, pandemonium struck. The stakes of the moment led to an avalanche of rule-breaking. San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili pressured Oklahoma City’s Dion Waiters more closely on the inbounds pass than permitted, Waiters responded by elbowing Ginobili out of the way, and even once the ball made it onto the court, shoves and stumbles were the currency of the play. The most slapstick moment came when a courtside San Antonio fan grabbed the arm of Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams, preventing him from cutting toward the rim. The sequence ended with the Spurs stealing the ball, trying a game-winning shot, and missing.

In the moments after the game, the lead official Ken Mauer expressed the same amazement as the fans, saying, “It’s a play we have never seen before, ever,” before admitting that there should have been a foul call against Waiters for throwing the elbow. The next day, however, when the NBA released its officiating reports for the game—a new practice this postseason and the latest vanguard in referee accountability—a whopping five violations on that final play were said to have gone unnoticed.

A few days after that game, the National Basketball Referees Association’s verified Twitter account posted a yes-or-no poll with the topic, “NBA basketball has suffered from too much reliance on reviews and second guessing calls.” If the poll seemed like a somewhat defensive response, it also examined the assumption that what are called improvements actually improve things. All the NBA’s measures had done in that situation, after all, was explicitly recognize a misstep, making for a more certified but no less stinging nuisance.

That evening’s ending in San Antonio was a rare mess, but the following play happens a half dozen or so times in a normal NBA game: Someone misses a shot, and multiple players from each team cluster under the rim to try for the rebound. The ball bounces off someone’s hand and out of bounds. It’s a tough call, and the players know it, rushing over and appealing to the closest official one way or another. For the majority of basketball history, this play ended with a final ruling, some grumbling, and quickly resumed play.

Now, though, the NBA allows such plays to be reviewed in the final two minutes of a game. While this idea was implemented with noble intentions—nobody wants to see the wrong team get the ball at a key moment, after all—in application, it has core flaws. Officials may use video evidence to decide who touched the ball last, but they may not call a foul, no matter how obvious. It’s not uncommon to see a player knock the ball out of bounds with another player’s hand wrangling his arm, and to see the referee award possession to the fouling team.

This sort of outcome makes for a special frustration to the viewer, because while the problem is apparent, the solution—to make fouls reviewable as well—is untenable. The average NBA play is rife with activity that could be considered in violation of the rules, and opening up a rebounding scrum for replay investigation would only demonstrate how overmatched the rulebook is in the flesh-and-blood world of elite basketball. Most everyone vying for the rebound would be shown in slow motion holding or throwing some underhanded shove, and trying to tease out real blame in such a scenario would be beyond the capabilities of even the most accomplished official.

The thing designed to correct the imperfections of the people keeping track of the game, then, only ends up circling back to emphasize those same imperfections. The old aggravations at feeling slighted or wronged have tacked to the end of them a deeper distress about the adequacy of any order at all in such a chaotic setting. It seems, at times, as if the whole procedure were thought up not to ease the audience’s doubts but to affirm them.

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Beyond just the age-old disdain for missed calls, purported improvements to officiating protocol have had a few different catalysts. The NFL, the benchmark of American sports in regards to both money-making and involved game-calling procedures, first introduced its present era of replay when high-definition televisions started letting fans at home see certain things better than the on-field officials could. The league now automatically reviews every scoring play and turnover, with or without any suspicion of a screw-up. It’s hard to read the NBA’s emphasis on referee transparency as anything other than an ongoing response to the 2007 Tim Donaghy scandal, in which an official was found to be betting on games. Major League Baseball has mostly taken its cues from injuries: Baserunning collisions in 2011 and 2015 that ended up breaking defenders’ legs resulted in rule changes governing what types of slides and defensive postures are legal. These plays and others are under the jurisdiction of baseball’s own growing video-review system.

This pattern dovetails with the evolutions of the games themselves. Sports are more heavily and variously scrutinized than ever before, with new analytic systems being applied on an annual basis. What had previously been the realm of habit or superstition—belief in the “clutch” character of a batter or shooter, for example—now gets subjected to study. Likewise, events that had played out according to a truce between rulebook legalese and custom, such as a slide into second or a rebounding melee, now invoke strict procedures.

But those procedures, by their very nature, are incomplete. Just to the side of whatever problem has been corrected is something else reminding us of the folly of trying to get humans to behave like board-game pieces. The micro-zoomed touchdown catch happens down the field from a mass of lineman holding and tripping and trying to gain any advantage they can; the basketball player’s sneaker either does or does not clip the sideline mere feet away from where one player tugs another’s jersey. The finality of refereeing—a call is made, that is that—used to create the illusion of control, difficult and easy calls alike all funneling quickly through the people in charge. Now, that illusion is gone.

In a section titled “The Referee” from his masterpiece Soccer in Sun and Shadow, the late famed Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano writes, “Scapegoat for every error, cause of every misfortune, the fans would have to invent him if he didn’t exist. The more they hate him, the more they need him.” The cold gift of the referee has always been to keep us fans from looking too closely at the games we love. We don’t have to mete out justice; we only have to judge those who do. Officials perform some combination of hard analysis and guesswork, and we get to moan in response, sure that there is some basic truth even if the people in charge got it wrong.

As the methods become more complex and transparent, though—as we all know what they’re trying to do better—fans take some of that responsibility on themselves. The cost of the attempts to improve is not only the increasingly regular sight of referees or umpires huddled up teasing a final ruling out of clauses and sub-clauses, or the interruption of replay. It’s the proof that our sports, exemplars of fairness, aren’t quite so stable as we used to believe.