Perspective: Refs Are Human, Too

by Thomas Fenner ‘24

Referees in professional sports have always been a common source of disagreement and frustration among fans and players regarding their power over the game. Whether it’s a fanbase whining about the officials blowing a game or a superstar player begging for a foul with the game on the line, refs have regularly been blamed for some of the inconsistencies in professional sports. 

It seems like the criticism of referees is at an all time high right now, especially with huge sporting events like the Super Bowl having controversy over calls. In the final minutes of the Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles, cornerback James Bradberry was flagged for a hold on Chiefs’ wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The holding call essentially clinched the win for the Chiefs, giving the Eagles only a few seconds of time on the clock when they would eventually get the ball back. Inevitably, viewers across the NFL landscape were not happy with the call. Fans of both the Eagles and those hoping for an exciting ending argued that the hold was insignificant and should have been let go. 

Holding is one of the most subjective calls in all of sports, as practically every time it’s called, you could argue it the other way.  While grabbing and tugging on the jersey like the one called does happen on practically every play in football, the referees made the right call, even if it was the difficult one. Even Bradberry admitted later in an interview that he was guilty of committing the penalty and that it was the right call. “It was a holding. I tugged his jersey. I was hoping they would let it slide,” Bradberry said. While it is one of the most infuriating ways for your favorite team to lose a big game, referees making unpopular calls has always been and will always be a part of sports. 

Referees are oftentimes an enemy in the eyes of fans, but what many fail to consider is the fact that they make mistakes just as the players do. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t agree with what the crowd is saying about officiating. “For us, when you look at officiating, I don’t think it’s ever been better in the league,” Goodell said. Opinions on refereeing is subjective most of the time, and usually depends on whether someone’s favorite team got the benefit of the call or not. However, a debate has recently grown around the sports community regarding changing the rules to change the level that referees can dictate the game. Leagues like the MLB may soon make the switch to remove umpires and lean on technology to make calls, similar to how they have been experimenting in the minor leagues. For a league like the NFL or NBA, the commonly proposed solution by critics is to allow for any play to be reviewable. However, a rule like this would dramatically slow down what is already a dragged out version of the sport in the case of the NBA. 

Removing referees entirely is not the answer. The inconsistency of referees, while annoying at times, actually adds to the dramatic effect of all sports. The way an official calls a game can change how teams play any given night which causes more exciting outcomes and differences in playstyle. Removing the human element from sports will create a less enticing game for fans and will likely cause stagnant ends to games.