Nov 5, 2011; San Francisco CA, USA; NCAA referee Jay Stricherz signals for a loss of down by Washington State Cougars against the California Golden Bears during the first quarter at AT

NCAA Football Rulebook Wednesday: The Truth Behind Unfair Calls In Emotional Settings


An interesting plot line that typically nobody thinks about when routing for their team in a football game (much less than basketball anyway) is the emotional setting for the referees. It’s very easy to get up and get frustrated at the referee that is making a “bad” call against your team, and it’s high time you know what causes these instances.

Referees have the toughest job on the field, which is to determine what is and is not “fair action” based on a set of rulebooks that is at least 200 pages between them (based on the high school rulebooks, the college books may be more). The books can only set a parameter though, because what you see on the field is rarely black and white. More often it is grey area and the official must determine his call based on his view of what was and wasn’t “fair action” within the particular play, based on both the parameter of the rule and the parameter of the action of the other player involved in the action. Confused yet? Try being the official.

In this blog we’re talking about making an unfair, emotional call during a football game. I believe just about every call is somewhat emotional anyway because it is based on reaction to severe action on the field that may or may not be determined as “fair action” or “equal opportunity action”. For the guys wearing the stripes, our split second reaction to a suspect situation generally produces emotion from us. Good or bad it’s our job to harness that emotion into making a fair call based on the rule that is in question and both players (or more) involved in the play. The offending player will rarely agree that he is guilty of the official’s judgement, but it does not mean that the flag was incorrect. Although officials candidly try and limit them, there are going to be good and bad calls in each of these instances during the game.

Ok, ok, enough “Ref 101″, let’s attack the question with some examples from last weekend’s college football action: When does a “bad call” become unfair?

There are 2 answers. First, when the call is made or ignored due to the emotional setting of the game, rather than the emotional reaction to the action at hand. Basically when an official starts worrying about the emotion of the game over the action that is taking place, the fact that he is about to make an unfair call is unstoppable.  This past week in the WSU/BYU game I watched a team get screwed twice because the officials got caught up in the emotion of the game, rather than simply officiating the action at hand. You can’t always tell when that’s the case, but in this instance it was clear that the official made the call up to appease the angry sideline and fan base of a team that had drawn several penalties over the coarse of the first half, and specifically in this drive. Replay showed there was ultimately clean play between the “offender” and the guy he push to the ground. Also, WSU lost a touchdown in both instances.

And secondly, when an official ignores an obvious penalty (as opposed to passing on a close play) because he believes that the “players should decide the game”, someone just got hosed. The problem is actually not in application, but rather in the theory that in late game situations anything goes (short of the most aggravated breaking of the rules) so that the players can determine it. Generally, team rep goes into this a lot too and it’s unfair to the team with less to lose because they’re the ones that almost always get hosed. In another game I watched last weekend, the receiver for Vandy clearly and crisply toasted the South Carolina defender and would have had a huge first down deep in SC territory with only minutes remaining. Keeping in mind that SC is ninth at this point in the country, the defender did everything he could to break it up, because he figured the penalty was better than a huge catch, swatting and clearly grabbing the receiver’s arm from behind to stop the catch from being made. 2 officials looking right at the play ignored the call, and it’s because they didn’t want to make a “tough” late game call against the higher rated team, regardless of whether or not it was actually a penalty. I’m sure that the excuse will be made that they saw the receiver get both arms on the ball, therefore he could have caught the pass, but to me that just doesn’t fly.

These are examples of unfair calls in emotional settings and while they happen all the time, they’re not supposed to. It happens in all sports, and now when you see them, you’ll now understand why the call is unfair. We’ll be back next Wednesday to recap some more college action, as it pertains to the rulebook.

Signed,

The Ref


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