Officially Bad: A Rundown of the Worst Officials in Sports

Officials are the one common element in every sporting event that we watch. Whether it’s the officials on the actual playing surface or the ones up in the replay both, they are always around. We as sports fans have grown accustomed to their bad calls and have learned to deal with their mishaps.
The problem I see with any official is simply the human error issue that any umpire or referee is going to have. Officials are trained in the sport they officiate and understand the rules of the game, so knowledge is not a problem. The problem arises when an official’s judgment on a call is different from another official’s who is officiating the same game. We as fans have the luxury to see the blown call at countless angles of replay and know before they do if they missed it or not. Based on their calling blunders, here is how I rank the 4 major sports (Football, Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey) officials from best to worst.
1. NHL Officials – Although this may be the least viewed out of the 4 major professional sports in the U.S., NHL officials do an excellent job of allowing the game of hockey to be uninterrupted. Those of us who know the rules of hockey, icing and off sides are the 2 most common infractions called in hockey games. Icing occurs when a player shoots the puck across at least two red lines, the opposing team’s goal line being the last, and the puck remains untouched. Offside occurs if a player on the attacking team enters the attacking zone before the puck itself enters the zone, either carried by a teammate or sent into the attacking zone by an attacking player. NHL officials allow the game of hockey to remain rough and untarnished when they call different penalties throughout the game. Players can still get checked hard into the glass and no penalty can be called. Unlike the NFL, the NHL has done a good job with allowing hockey to remain unblemished with any rule changes to how players play the game. Plus, how can you argue with officiating that allows a fight to go on until one of the players falls down?
2. MLB Umpires – In my opinion, Major League Baseball umpires do a great job of keeping control of a baseball game. But, a two-week study by ESPN’s Outside The Lines reported that MLB umpires miss about 20% of close calls.  That’s really surprising.  Also, unlike other sports where close calls are usually pure judgment calls, close calls in baseball are usually out/safe or fair/foul, which for the most part can be determined by instant replay.  Nonetheless, even though umpires in MLB may miss some calls, baseball is America’s pastime and any new instant replay rules would ruin the flow of the game (plus, four hours is long enough for a sporting event anyway). Armando Galarraga may tend to differ with me, however, based on the blown call by umpire Jim Joyce on the last out of a game in 2010 to end his perfect game with the Detroit Tigers.  Even still, Joyce felt so bad about the call, the next day when he was behind home plate, he shook Galarraga’s hand and couldn’t hold back tears because he felt so bad. MLB’s history allows for umpires blown calls to be accepted more by fans and media.
Hochuli is also one of the most buff officials in sports

NFL official Ed Hochuli is one of the more recognizable--and generally better--refs in sports, but even he gets it wrong sometimes. (e.g. Game blowing call in Denver vs. Chargers in 2008)

3. NFL Officials – NFL officials probably have the hardest job in sports calling a NFL game. Besides offsides penalties, pretty much all other penalty calls they have are judgment calls. Holding and pass interference drive me crazy. I couldn’t tell you how many times Chris Collinsworth, Troy Aikmen, and John Gruden have said the officials “were wrong on that one” or “let the guys play”. I can’t even tell if it’s a hold sometimes after I watch five replays that FOX or CBS gives me. Sometimes the pass interference calls occur when hardly any contact happens. Luckily for NFL officials, they have instant replay and if they do miss a call, it can be reviewed by a coach’s challenge. All scoring plays are also reviewed in the NFL, so most scores are gotten correct. This brings up the argument of, “Should instant replay be allowed in the NFL?” You can argue for or against it, but for the time being, officials have instant replay to keep them from looking as good or bad as they are.  The only downfall is that it seems like there is a replay on every single possession, significantly slowing the flow of the game. 
4. NBA Referees – I have a negative bias against NBA officials, because basketball was a sport that I played in college. I once fouled out of a game against Tennessee Tech with only 7 minutes of game time played. You could blame it on me (poor defense), my coach (crazy to begin with), or the officials. I’m going to stick to option number 3, the officials. Every call an official makes in the NBA is their judgment call. Some officials allow the players to play, others do not. Players never know what to expect out of an official in a NBA game. Basketball officials at any level of play have the in-door atmosphere against them, which I think fuels their egos. Fans can call them out and they can probably hear every word they say. At an outdoor event like football or baseball, a fan’s voice will not carry that far. NBA officials also call the game in a more relaxed way compared to college or high school. Players are allowed multiple steps when driving to the basket and continuation after the whistle is very much allowed in the NBA, unlike any other basketball level. So the next time you play in your rec league game on Monday night and take 2 and a half steps going in for a lay-up and get called for a travel, blame it on the NBA officials.
In total, the officials in professional sports are not that bad.  The inclusion of instant replay has helped, even though it slows the flow of the game.  But the reality is, those guys are human, and most missed calls involve fractions of an inch or a split-second.  So the next time you watch a sporting event and an official makes a call that you think is bad or actually was blown (instant replay), remind yourself that these individuals are human and will make mistakes, just like you and I.
By: Craig Emmert

4 thoughts on “Officially Bad: A Rundown of the Worst Officials in Sports

  1. I’m sorry but the NBA officials this year are the worst in the history of the NBA. There are days that my blood boils so much because of their bias, stupid calls (even with replay) they still screw it up. I just think that they need to be retrained and cut the crap about talking to the officials from players needs to end and needs to end now or it will get worse. I am on the verge of never watching the NBA again because of the officials and their horrible bias, flops, bail out, and superstar calls. I’m tired of seeing people get calls because they fall and the refs didn’t see it but saw a body fall and give a player free throws. They are there to officiate the game yet they let their emotions run them more then any officials in any sports.

    • You hit the nail on the head with why I DID quit following the NBA more than a quarter of a century ago. While the fact that only about a fourth of the teams are eliminated after an arduous 82-game regular season also was a contributing factor in my decision, the lack of integrity in the way the NBA game is officiated is reason number 1 of why I quit watching. That a gambling scandal involving an NBA referee came to light a few years ago didn’t surprise me in the least. In short, as a (non-gambling) fan, I can’t trust the NBA product to be authentic. If I understand your rant correctly, it seems things haven’t changed a bit in the National Basketball Association when it comes to officiating.

  2. The NHL refs are by far the worlds worst. As a heavy user of NHL products ( I have watched over 4200 games) This year is really the finest display of incompetence ever. The very first thing I learned in ref school was ” only call what you know you see, never call what you thought you saw.”. That went out the window. I have never seen so many calls by the back ref when the ref ten feet from the play lets it go. What is my point? I am beginning to wonder if the NHL is corrupt. Either the league is corrupt from Gary Bettman down, or the offocials are just plain incompetent. The little stuff goes uncalled, then out of no place there is a penalty for the same thing done fifteen times earlier in the game. When someone like me can’t understand the mindset of the league and the offocials, it’s over. I still watch, but it’s painful to see the game I love go down the drain because of horrible management and officiating Bring back more refs like Paul Stewart.

    • I’m not a follower of the National Hockey League, so I wouldn’t know about that. But as a devoted National Football League fan, the word “corruption” enters my head more and more these days. Every sports game official makes mistakes, even the best. But the obvious nature of some of the missed calls in NFL games in recent years makes me wonder about what’s going on.

      A few years ago, in the comments section under a story that discussed whether NFL games have been or could be fixed, a commenter stated something very interesting. He said (and I am reconstructing from memory) that it isn’t like the darker powers in the NFL rig the outcome of every single game, but that, if you pay attention to media coverage of the league and who’s getting the publicity and who isn’t and what possible matchups are being predicted more often for the playoffs and Super Bowl, you can, according to the commenter, “get a feel for the pulse of the way ‘they’ want things to go.” He said, as an admitted gambler, the key was to refocus the decision of how to bet on where that trend was going. He claimed that in the season previous to that which the story appeared his gambling on the NFL in this way led him to net more than $10,000 on his NFL wagers.

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