In a wild weekend of sports, Patrick Mahomes, playing on a high ankle sprain, put up a herculean effort to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship. That same weekend, the Philadelphia Eagles absolutely dominated the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship, and several close NBA matchups took place. Despite a packed weekend of sports, one thing overshadowed all the sports that took place: poor officiating.
With the score tied in the Lakers-Celtics matchup, LeBron James missed a lay-up at the end of regulation where he appeared to be contacted and fouled while going up to make the shot. No foul was called, and LeBron, along with most who saw the play, were flabbergasted that no foul was called. The game went into overtime, and the Celtics came away with the victory.
The Lakers have caught a tough break with officiating this season: the Lakers lost several games this season at the last second due to questionable officiating, and each time the league issued a statement after the game admitting their mistakes in officiating. Despite going through a tough season of injury, player turnover, and falling on the wrong side of the officiating, the Lakers are only four games behind the fourth-place Los Angeles Clippers in the highly contested Western Conference, placing even higher importance on every game, and making every officiating blunder even worse.
After the Lakers game, no one could have predicted NFL Conference Championship weekend would place even more scrutiny on the officials. After the Cincinnati Bengals’ 23-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship, the NFL referees received enormous backlash from not only Bengals fans but also prominent members of NFL media for the way the game was called. There are a number of plays I could pull out from that game where questionable officiating took place, but some of the major ones took place late in the game, including an intentional grounding penalty called on Joe Burrow where the ball did not reach the line of scrimmage, yet his receiver was only a few feet away from where the ball landed. On a punt return that led to the Chief’s game-winning field goal, there was a blatant block in the back penalty committed by the Chiefs, along with a hold on the final offensive play of the game that also was not called. If any of these three plays had gone differently, the outcome of the game could have been completely different.
Bad officiating in the NBA and NFL has, unfortunately, been a common theme for both leagues throughout this season. Both sports obviously have different rules, but it all boils down to a similar problem: nothing seems consistent, and every officiating decision seems subjective.
Shooting fouls have been the Achilles heel of NBA officiating for years. A play where the player shooting the ball appears to be fouled may be called a certain way in one game by the ref, but then the exact same play and foul sequence will not be called in another game.
Officiating is tough in the NFL due to the depth of the rulebook and the speed of play. However, there have been too many egregious mistakes made this season. NFL refs have struggled to get a lot right this season, in particular penalties such as the widely hated roughing the passer and taunting penalties, pass interference, and its catch rules, which seem to change every season. Nothing is called consistently, and every ref appears to have a different definition of what is and is not a penalty.
In recent years, both sports have increasingly implemented replay reviews to help the officials get calls right. Its main purpose, especially in the NFL, was to serve as a way to make it difficult to overturn calls that were made on the field unless it showed definitive evidence the wrong call was made. Instead, replay has been used to make a call, regardless of whether the call was made in real-time. At first glance, that seems like the right idea: get the call right at all costs. However, the use of replay has allowed the officials to justify overturning calls with clear and obvious evidence, further fueling the lack of consistency in officiating.
At the end of the day, these officiating woes bode poorly for both the NBA and NFL. It’s not a good look for the NFL when the phrase ‘NFL is Rigged’ is trending on Twitter right after the AFC Championship, one of the biggest games of the year, and prominent NFL media figures are questioning whether or not the NFL is rigged. The NFL does not hire its refs on a full-time basis, a huge point of criticism for the league as the refs have jobs outside of officiating NFL games and do not have much, if anything, to lose from the outcomes of their calls. On the other hand,
NBA refs are full-time employees but do not appear to be doing a much better job than the NFL refs. Should both leagues look into rule changes that will make officiating more objective and consistent or even changes to the officiating process that will take pressure off of officials in big moments? Either way, this season proves that the NBA and NFL must make changes to officiating so that it does not overshadow the amazing play that takes place in these games.