Four Ways to Make Officiating Better

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome was the scene of a robbery on Sunday.
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome was the scene of a robbery on Sunday. Photo by rulenumberone2 via Flickr
New Orleans has, in recent years, become a remarkably safe place. That stands somewhat in contrast to years when crime levels were high in the Crescent City. In those days, fans streaming into the Superdome might have been concerned about being robbed on their way to see the Saints. On Sunday, fans were probably surprised when they were robbed inside the stadium.

For anyone who may have missed it (much the way the officials missed this call), in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game between the Saints and the LA Rams, there was a blatant pass interference call against the Rams that wasn't called, perhaps even costing the Saints the win. See for yourself.

This is hardly the first blown call in recent years in the NFL or the NBA or in Major League Baseball. There have been attempts by every pro sports league to improve the accuracy of officiating, most specifically through the use of replay. But, it remains woefully short on results and there continue to be so many moments like what we saw on Sunday that it becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss the problem as "well, it's a really tough job."

There are things, however, that can be done right away to improve the situation even besides including replay on penalties. These aren't perfect fixes and not nearly extensive enough to address all the problems, but it would go a long way towards improving the situation on the field and keeping fans from rioting in the streets.

Expand the Use of Replay

Replay is tricky because no one wants to add significant amounts of time to games to look at every call. There is some degree of acceptance we all must have in the fact that it is impossible to get every call perfect. But, the fact that replay cannot be used to overturn penalties in critical situations or to even argue the case is ridiculous.

The leagues are clearly trying to be careful not to undermine officials while, at the same time, slow down the pace of play. But sometimes getting it right is more important than expedience.

Improve Technology

In tennis, all the lines are monitored by digital technology that shows, visually and without argument, if a ball is in or out. Challenges show even the tiniest sliver of a ball when it touches the line. It seems unfathomable that tennis can employ this technology but the big three pro sports cannot. Out of bounds miscalls could be all but  eliminated.

And imagine what could be done for the integrity of the strike zone if the tech we see used during broadcasts was employed during game action.

Above all else, the NFL in particular (but baseball and basketball could benefit as well) needs more cameras from every angle. It seems a safe bet the NFL could afford a boatload of GoPros covering virtually every conceivable viewpoint from the sidelines to the end zones. Hell, do a sponsorship trade and some camera company would provide them for free.

If they can put yellow lines on a field to show where the first down is and give the launch angle and speed of a home run, there's a good chance they can add technology to the game to get calls right.

Add Officials to Games

This is perhaps the easiest way to increase the odds a call like Sunday's won't get missed — or in the Rockets-Warriors game when Kevin Durant was three steps out of bounds and nobody saw it. Add more eyeballs. In basketball, not having a fourth official seems almost derelict. In a perfect world, you have four on the floor and a replay official at the scorers table for every game.

In baseball, it boggles the mind there are no officials in the outfield. And football, that field is enormous. Give these guys some help so they don't have to rely on their limited field of vision.

Demonstrate Clear Accountability Through Transparency

Every league is loathe to admit mistakes though the NFL admitted it immediately after Sunday's game. The NBA and MLB have both begun to issue statements on bad calls or missed plays. But, the equivalent of "my bad" after a devastating loss isn't going to be nearly enough to quell the outrage of fans or lend greater credibility to the games. If the league really wanted to own up to mistakes, don't just report on them. Explain what you are doing to change it.

Over and over again, umpires in baseball are allowed to call their own strike zones even when MLB officials admit that strike calls were missed. Force officials to call the game correctly and, if they don't, remove them and tell everyone what you did. How can anyone know if you are fixing something when the same officials making the bad calls are still on the field?

More importantly, be open about your rules process. Let us in on the decisions you are making and why. The more we know, the less we are left to imagine for ourselves, avoiding conspiracy theories and judgement calls. Opening up the process for all to see will take the pressure off everyone including the officials themselves.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke