Andy Kirkaldy: Officials do tough work that could be done better

Sports officials deserve respect. It’s a tough job, and I can speak from the experience of refereeing a couple hundred middle-school, freshman and junior-varsity soccer and basketball games, and probably close to another hundred men’s league basketball games.
It’s hard enough just making the calls. Did that hand brush the elbow on the jump shot? Was that a block or a charge? Was the handball intentional or not, and did it affect play? Should that push be called and a free kick awarded, or is there an advantage to the offensive team that should allow play to continue? You have a split-second to decide.
And then there’s the whining from coaches (from an elementary school soccer coach: “Isn’t it a shame that the smaller player happened to fall down just because the other player was bigger?”), outraged parents (a mom confronted me on the field after a middle school girls’ soccer game) and legends-in-their-own-minds in the old Middlebury Basketball League (“I never touched him! He stumbled 10 feet into the back wall all by himself!”).
Yeah, it’s not easy work.
That said, at all levels poor officiating truly does affect the outcomes of games. In a 2002 men’s World Cup quarterfinal, for example, the USA actually had Germany on the ropes, and a German defender prevented a U.S. shot from going into the goal with his hand. Germany won, 1-0. Today, goal-line replays would probably result in an automatic goal and a card for the German.
And don’t even get me started on the NFL, where officials and the rulebook can’t even agree on what constitutes a touchdown or a catch.
The NFL has rules so poorly written that if a running back carries a ball over the goal line he can fumble the ball the instant he crosses line and it’s still a touchdown, but if a receiver does the same thing he can take another full step and then bobble the ball only when he hits the ground, and it’s not a score.
Or a player can carry the ball, bobble it as he crosses the line, and then regain control in the end zone, and the NFL will not only not award a TD, but also give the ball to the other team on its 20-yard-line. Ask the New York Jets about this rule.
Or refs will call intentional grounding, like they did on Carolina’s Cam Newton on Sunday even though he was in the pocket and hit as he was throwing, meaning he couldn’t throw the ball where he wanted and it was thus impossible to determine his intent. And the assistants tried to tell the head ref it wasn’t a penalty, only he wouldn’t listen. And it came in the final minute with Newton’s team trailing by five to the Saints and threatening to score.
Or on Saturday, when a Kansas City linebacker sacked Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota, and the Chiefs recovered the fumble. But the referee (who immediately retired after the game — too late) ruled the QB had stopped making “forward progress” and blew the play dead, even though the player was not running. Tennessee then kicked a field goal in a game they won by one point. Because the referee’s ruling was a “judgment call” the Chiefs could not challenge.
The truth is the NFL would be better run by a roomful of chimps throwing darts, and its referees, with only a few exceptions, are not fulltime employees because its billionaire owners are too cheap to pay salaries and benefits. They’re getting what they pay for with referees who don’t get the respect and training they deserve.
And if the league cared about player safety they would use post-game video replay to fine players — including offensive players who lower their heads instead of their shoulders — for helmet hits. And if it cared about its fans they would give officials 60 seconds to make up their minds on replays. If it’s not conclusive by then, let the damn call stand. Ditto for Major League Baseball and the NBA.
Ah, the NBA. No problem with the rules there. Basketball rules are pretty straightforward. But there are two sets depending on whether a player is a star or not. For example (I’ll stick with the Celtics, the team I watch the most), if you are Al Horford, every time you set a pick you stick your posterior into the path of the opposing defender. The referee says, hey, Al, how’s the wife and kids?
If you are German rookie Daniel Theis and you set a pick and merely twitch a glute, the same referee will cuff you, read you the riot act, and deport your family.
Then there are the traveling non-calls. Everybody raves about the Sixers’ young center Joel Embiid and his post moves. I watched an embedded clip at theringer.com intended to demonstrate said moves and he took at least four steps before he shot. OK, then, Embiid is not to be confused with Kevin McHale.
And when the Celtics recently rallied to beat Houston, Marcus Smart did a creditable shuttle drill on the perimeter before making a key assist. Even the NBA’s own report noted the officials missed six calls on the Celtics in the final two minutes alone. I can attest they missed many more on the Rockets earlier in the game.
Answers? Well, baseball’s video reviews actually work pretty well, but put a time limit on them.
NBA officials are going to make mistakes. A veteran Vermont official I once worked with told that me of all the sports, hoop is the hardest to work. But the NBA office should encourage its referees to treat all the players equally, and, again, to speed up the replays.
The NFL must simplify its catch rule, unify its touchdown rules, make its officials full-time employees, allow them to apply some common sense, and insist they consult on key calls.
Soccer can continue to use video for goal-line replay, and in particular use it for post-game review to crack down on embellishment of non-existent fouls.
Finally, here’s a word in defense of officials, particularly after watching some of the NFL teams’ inept play this past weekend. The quality of their work isn’t and will never be perfect, but it is at least as good or better as that of the teams and athletes they are monitoring.
And the games couldn’t go on without them. We had a “call-your-own fouls” first season in the Middlebury Basketball League, which I helped run. When players griped about the officials I reminded them about that winter. They usually got the point. 

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