The Art of Officiating

Here’s something a bit odd to think about: You really can tell how important officiating is to a sport by how many officials the sport uses. For instance, in tennis there can be up to 11 officials in professional matches -- I think the breakdown is one chair umpire, four sideline judges. four service line judges, and two baseline judges -- PLUS a referee and a chief umpire, PLUS an advanced camera system called Hawk-eye to be the final word.

Golf, meanwhile, has plainclothes rules officials who never seem to be anywhere nearby, who ride around in golf carts and wear Secret Service ear-pieces connected to some 24-hour all-rules radio station or something. They never see anything, and they pop-up every now and again, mostly to tell Tiger Woods he basically can do whatever he wants. This gets at the difference in the two sports. In golf, for the most part, the golfers are on the honor system. Yes, these days there are millions of officials watching their every move on television and they somehow know how to call in their complaints.* But generally speaking golfers are supposed to officiate themselves and their partners.

*This is actually pretty amazing to me. It usually takes me an hour to find a number for my cable company when the Internet goes out or to call Apple when something goes wrong, but these people know how to find the telephone number to the rules people at a professional golf tournament. Crazy.

Meanwhile, at the highest level of tennis, they don’t trust players to do ANYTHING themselves. They have people watching to see if the player’s foot happens to touch the line while serving. They have someone to MAKE the call, and they have someone to OVERRULE the call if necessary, and they have an appeal system that allows players to take their case to the highest court in the sport, a complex, insanely expensive computer system that blends the angles of six cameras and is displayed by a not especially realistic looking animation of a tennis ball and a line.

So you could say tennis considers officiating more important than golf does.

If anything, the contrast is even more stark in the two footballs. We talked a bit about this on the Poscast this week -- yes, we’re back -- but it came up again Monday night. In soccer, there are technically four officials. There is a referee, two linesmen and a fourth official who is essentially in charge of substitutions, keeping up with time stoppages and getting yelled at by managers because he happens to be standing close by. The fourth official is important, I suppose, in the same way that Commissioner Gordon is important in Batman. He is not really a major player.

So, basically. an entire soccer match is officiated by three people, and the referee -- the one official actually on the pitch -- runs up and down the pitch like a madman and makes the bulk of the important decisions, including fouls, penalties, who to book with a yellow or red card and so on and so on. It is a near impossible task, of course, which I think has an enormous impact on how soccer is played. For instance, players tend to dive quite often in soccer -- more, probably, than any of the other major sports in America. I think this is because players know that it’s likely that the referee is not close enough to get a great angle of the play. The dives can look quite comical (or infuriating, depending on your point of view) on replay. But live, from 20 meters away, with a view partially obscured, it can look like a foul, and the players know this. So the diving continues.

I think soccer matches -- especially in the Premier League -- tend to be officiated in a more literary way, not unlike the way someone officiates a wedding. By that I mean that the rules of soccer seem to be viewed as interesting guidelines meant to make the game more dramatic and fun rather than strict laws that are to be studied and preserved and argued about by talmudic scholars.

You can tell this is true by the way soccer matches end. They almost never end when something interesting is happening. While most American sports are timed to end at the precise 100th of a second, soccer ends whenever the official decides it should end. And this is almost NEVER when a team is close to scoring a goal. When a team is attacking in an interesting way, the referee seems to be thinking, “Hey, sure, I know, the match should be over, but I want to see this.”

I find it hilarious at the end of regulation time when that fourth official holds up that sign that shows how much stoppage time is left in the match -- it’s always a single number like “4.” Yep, four minutes left. Exactly four minutes? Well, uh, maybe not exactly four, you know, it’s kind of a rough estimate. So is it really 4:28? Is it 4:58? Is it 8:49? Nobody’s saying -- (according to my soccer-expert editor Randy the rule is that AT LEAST four minutes must go by). Let’s just call it “4,” and think about the particulars later. Don’t worry, The referee will keep looking at his watch and tell you when it’s over.

Meanwhile, American football referees will stop the game for a half an hour waiting for the timekeeper to put 2:27 back on the clock when it’s showing 2:26.

So, that’s soccer -- one referee, two lines judges and a sport that is officiated in a grand, over-arching way where no one seems to get too worked up about the minutia. There’s a great Latin expression about trivial points of law: de minimis non curat lex -- “The law does not concern itself with trifling matters.” That’s how soccer is officiated.

And then -- there’s football, where there is no such thing as a trifling matter. There are seven officials on the field in a pro football game -- a referee, an umpire, a head linesman, a line judge, a back judge, a side judge and a field judge. There is also a replay official in the booth. There are also numerous former officials on retainer for the networks to ask questions.

And in pro football, there is nothing too small to consider. Nothing. The clock is supposed to stop and start precisely.* First downs are measured to the nanometer. Catches are reviewed from 10 different angles. Touchdowns are played back and forth like the Zapbruder film -- did the tip of the ball cross the goal line before the knee touched a blade of grass?

*I don’t know if you noticed this -- probably not -- but during the Panthers-Patriots game, the clock did not seem to start on time on a play with 2:45 left. It was probably only stuck for one or two or three seconds -- but that really might have made all the difference. Because it was stuck, the Panthers ran a play at 2:01 and the clock stopped for the two minute warning. If not for that delay, the Panthers would have run that play AFTER the two minute warning, which could have had pretty significant impact on the clock. The Patriots ran their final play with three seconds left -- they might have had to run something completely different and earlier if the clock had been wound properly. This is what I mean by trifling matters.

We expect crazy precision in football officiating -- all the more crazy because there is nothing precise about pro football officiating. The difference between holding and legal block is microscopic and in the eye of the beholder. The difference, between pass interference and defensive holding and illegal contact and a clean play is even smaller. Here’s something to think about: On punt and kickoff returns, you often will have some sort of penalty on the receiving team. A hold. A block in the back. A hands to the face. Whatever. There seems to be a penalty on maybe 30% of all returned kicks. You know this and have probably complained about it at some point.

But, think about it another way: You almost NEVER have a penalty on the kicking team. Yes, now and again you will have an offsides or someone illegally crunching the guy calling for the fair catch, but generally speaking you must be allowed to do ANYTHING YOU WANT if you are the kicking team. That’s football. What’s illegal for one guy is not illegal for another. What’s a late hit for one official is not late for another. A holding call in the first quarter isn’t necessarily a holding call in the second quarter. The game is a whirlwind of subjectivity. It is like trying to referee a earthquake. Still, we as fans have an almost unlimited capacity for parsing the rules.

And so we go to Monday Night, where Carolina led New England by four points, last play of the game. Tom Brady dropped back, then stepped up in the pocket, then threw the ball into the end zone where it was intercepted by Carolina’s Robert Lester. Behind the ball, New England’s tight end Rob Gronkowski was obviously and blatantly being kept from the football by Panthers’ linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Back judge Greg Meyer threw a flag that was obviously going to be pass interference. Then there was a discussion, and referee Clete Blakeman announced that there was no penalty on the play and the game was over.

What was most interesting was not the call/no call, nor was it the glorious Bill Belichick grumpathon press conference that, at some point, sounded to me like a Saturday Night Live skit.

Reporter 1: Bill, um, did the officials give you any explanation for that last play? Belichick (looking like he wanted to strangle reporter): No. Reporter 2: How about the official: Did he give you an explanation? Belichick (looking like he wanted drop reporter from top of tall building): No. Reporter 3: On that controversial last play, did you get some kind of clarification of what the officials saw? Belichick (looking like he wanted to feed reporter to sharks): No. Reporter 4. Bill, was there some kind of statement from the official expounding on the final play? Belichick (looking like he wanted to run over reporter with car five times): No. Reporter 5: Bill, what was the interpretation given to you on that last play by the official? Belichick takes reporter into side room and drops him into dungeon where he is eaten by lions.

No, what was most interesting was that long after the play, heck even now, people STILL do not know if that was really pass interference. The rules are that opaque. The defining question seems to be whether or not the ball was catchable. ESPN’s referee on call Gerry Austin said the ball was definitely not catchable. Other people who seemed to have actually watched the video thought it was certainly catchable had a linebacker not been holding Gronkowski back. ESPN’s analysts ran a delightful simulation of the play with Steve Young as Tom Brady and Trent Dilfer as Rob Gronkowski. Twitter decided it was a mess. Referee Clete Blakeman released a statement saying they made the right call because, well, they just did. It was a fun free for all.

Personally, I think it was pretty clearly pass interference -- and I say this as someone who was happy to see the Panthers win. I also think it wouldn’t have mattered at all if Greg Meyer doesn’t throw the flag. If he doesn’t throw the flag, the game ends, and only a few hardcore fans and GIF makers would have noticed Kuechly mauling Gronkowski. Anyway, a soccer referee would have dealt with it differently. He would have just let the Patriots run another play.