Foul? Nah, No Foul For You.

Disgruntled fans often criticize referees for their foul calls, but are these calls actually legitimate?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Phoebe Buckwalter

FOUL! THAT’S A FOUL!!! REF, WHERE’S MY CALL?! Penalties, fouls, and controversial actions are inevitable in any sports game. These situations are usually handled by referees, who decide whether or not to hand out a penalty, and the game goes on. However, players will often argue against the ruling. After all, who would want a foul called against them? It is rare for a call to get overturned, especially without a full review, but viewers at home watching replays still flock to social media to criticize referees for mishandled incidents. Recently, the term “blind” has become a popular way to describe refs, but fans have always been angry with officials. Regardless of the situation, there will always be controversy over whether or not it was the right call. 

Going all the way back to the sixth game in the 2002 NBA Western Conference finals, it seemed as if the Sacramento Kings kept getting the short end of the foul calls against the Los Angeles Lakers. Many people believed that the referees were on the Lakers’ side; every call—or no call—was benefiting them. When Lakers guard Kobe Bryant elbowed Kings guard Mike Bibby in the face, there was no call. When Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal shoved Kings center Vlade Divac around in the paint, the foul was called on Divac instead. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers shot 27 free throws, while the Kings shot nine—a third of what the Lakers got. Many people questioned whether the calls were legitimate or not, with some even wondering if the game was rigged to bring the series to a climactic seventh game. Games like this, in which a series of close calls seem to go toward one team, lead many fans to believe that the officials make their calls with a motive in mind rather than specifically in line with the rules.

Flash forward to the NFL’s 2018 NFC Championship game between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams. With 1:49 remaining in the game, Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman committed what should have been three penalties on this crucial third down play, most obviously by hitting Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis in the head with his helmet, and yet nothing was called. Had just one of his three infractions been called, the Saints would have likely secured their spot in the Super Bowl. Many people considered this to be the most catastrophic no-call ever ruled by NFL officials. These types of game-altering calls seem to happen on a weekly basis in leagues across the world, ranging anywhere from simple to outright missed calls. So, are the referees really “bad” or “blind” after all?

Despite their seemingly poor decision-making, it is important to recognize that referees are only human, meaning that they will make mistakes. In the heat of a game, the pressure on referees gradually increases as they are expected to make split-second decisions that could ultimately change the outcome of the game. Being human also makes referees prone to bias, so sometimes a penalty can be acknowledged for one player and then the same action can be completely ignored for a different player. For example, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green is a frequent victim of bias in today’s media-driven world. Over his career, he has built up a reputation as a physical player and has been involved in numerous violent confrontations on court. Green’s lowlights are frequently posted on social media, and the majority of the league, including the refs, has heard of his exploits. In hindsight, some of Green’s flagrant fouls appear to have no hostility behind them whatsoever, as Green attributes a majority of his behavior to a passion for his team; as he said in a recent interview with NBC Sports, “I’ll come to a teammate’s defense anytime that I’m in a position to come to a teammate’s defense. I take pride in being a good teammate. That’s when I step in here every single day. That’s [number one] on my list, to be a good teammate…” However, refs often immediately assume that Green makes plays with malicious intent because of the narrative the media has associated with him. 

The inverse is also true, as players can sometimes get away with dirty plays due to their popularity and reputations. Refereeing should be objective, but unfair calls can be made because of external bias. To fix this, the prospect of robo-refs has been considered. Robots are unable to be influenced by bias and can catch any action that occurs. However, so far they have only been implemented in a few specific situations, with the most popular ones being used in tennis to mark whether the ball is out or not. Though robo-refs eliminate any doubt about a call, we are a long way from completely transitioning to an artificial intelligence-based refereeing system. The cost to manufacture high-quality robo-refs is astronomically high, as the analysis process that AI has to go through to generate a valid call is extremely intensive. 

Audiences also have to keep in mind that no two scenarios are exactly the same. As the rules in sports continue to evolve over time, calls become more complex. Referees have to differentiate between all sorts of body contact, where even the slightest difference in positioning can completely reverse a call. The rules surrounding these intricacies are constantly changing, requiring referees to alter the way they look at the game. In 1857, a new rule was implemented which made what used to be a home run opportunity during a foul ball into a penalty. For basketball, what was considered a travel in the 1900s may now be seen as a gather-step. In soccer, a player is now only offsides if their entire body is ahead of the defender, this makes the game less restrictive to allow for more chances at scoring. As time progresses, so will the sport. Referees will also age, but their way of enforcing the rules of the game may not. In reality, a referee’s call has numerous factors to it. When calls are made, errors can be present and those errors will alter games. However, this is bound to happen. Referees are human, and they each have their own opinions. Those opinions can be influenced by what they see and don’t see, or by players and fans. Since a referee is supposed to be as objective as possible, those factors can hinder a call. The call may be legitimate in their eyes but not in others’, or they could simply have poor eyesight. Whatever the case, as long as human referees are present, there will always be calls that are connected to controversy and that seem illegitimate.