Why NFL Referees Can't Get On the Ball 

Zen and the Art of Refereeing

When not otherwise occupied watching football, baseball, hockey, basketball or just about anything else involving a ball or a puck, I while away my hours pondering the great questions of the universe. Why are we here? What's the meaning of life?

Most importantly, why is it still so hard for NFL officials to get it right?

The dissatisfaction has been building for years, and it's not just the big games: Furor over officiating is constant. Blown calls and phantom infractions mar every week, just about every game.

I won't belabor the necessity of hiring full-time officials, something the NFL inexplicably refuses to do. I'll just say that, in an industry whose worth dwarfs the GNP of some small nations, officials are duty-bound to provide the best-trained referees in sport.

Officiating is a tough job in any sport, but why does it seem like Major League Baseball umpires get it right so much more often than NFL referees? There are only a handful of major-league baseball games in which officiating is even an issue.

In the NFL, meanwhile, Giants fans are already displeased with an errant pass-interference call. Miami fans are more outraged by Coach Nick Saban's apathetic red hanky toss than the French were by Zidane receiving a red flag in the World Cup … and everybody knows France is the birthplace of whining.

But is the officiating really that bad?

Eric Bronson, a professor of philosophy and history at Berkeley University in New York City, who edits Baseball & Philosophy when not pondering a priori reasoning, shared some thoughts via e-mail. He notes, first of all, that there are 10 times as many baseball games in a season, so the blown calls even out by the end of a season, or even a series.

"It's understood that in baseball, one or two games going against you is part of the routine," Bronson says. But in the NFL, "Every game matters a heck of a lot more than a baseball game." And thanks to round-the-clock coverage of a once-a-week game schedule, "[T]here is a week to play the error over and over again."

Refs in the NFL also make more calls for fans to dispute. Beyond tossing a headhunting pitcher or breaking up a melee, baseball umpires don't have to protect players' safety. In football, though, there are numerous penalties that exist for the safety of players: face-mask infractions, chop blocks, roughing the passer, and so on. That's not to mention such tasks as watching formations, the clock and motion prior to the snap, in addition to determining whether the ball crossed the goal line, a receiver dragged his feet in bounds, or the ground caused a fumble.

"There is much more room for subjective interpretation in football calls than in baseball," says Mark Hamilton, a philosophy professor at Ashland University and NCAA faculty athletic representative and compliance coordinator.

"The strike zone has some subjectivity to it, and players all want consistency, but plays in the field — force outs, tags, etc. — are more clear-cut," Hamilton adds. "There is no or little room for ambiguity. … In football, pass-interference, holding, blocks from behind, personal fouls, etc. are more open to interpretation. … [O]nce or twice a game it seems like there is disagreement on whether a given play is interference."

Given the scope of the officials' duties — and the structure of the game itself — maybe grumbling about officiating is just an inevitable by-product in the NFL. "In baseball generally all the action is where the ball is, so everyone can see the play happen," Hamilton notes. "In football, penalties can happen away from the ball and out of the sight range of fans, coaches, other players. So a great play can be called back by something that is not a part of the play."

I still maintain that full-time officials would make a difference. New football commissioner Roger Goodell should make it his priority to address the problems with officials. Meanwhile, fans might want to take a collective deep breath before turning on the next NFL game, and realize that blown calls are just one more variable to overcome — like weather, fan noise and injuries. Fans should, in other words, try to be philosophical.

Even so, somehow I don't think that's gonna fly in Seattle and Oakland.


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