People have been complaining about how sports are officiated for as long as there have been sports. In the first footrace at the Olympic Games nearly 3,000 years ago, one can imagine angry spectators throwing stones at some poor timekeeper.
The voices have grown louder and angrier, it seems, in recent years. Maybe officiating is getting worse? Maybe (probably) we're more sensitive to missed calls because high-definition TV and slow-motion replays give us a better look, in many cases, than the officials get? Maybe the magnitude of controversial calls, given the millions (and in some cases billions) at stake gives them more impact and makes them seem more pervasive?
Whatever the case, the anger seems directed at two main sources: balls and strikes in MLB games (where that little box makes us all instant umpires); and pretty much any flag that comes out during an NFL game. The former is a problem, but beyond some momentum for "robot umps" it feels mostly like background noise in baseball. Nobody rational would say the work of home plate umpires is ruining the sport.
In the NFL, however, there is an increasing sense that the rules and how they are enforced — including the addition of reviewable pass interference this year — is tainting the product. Even Tom Brady, who tends to have the most milquetoast opinions, tweeted during a Thursday night game earlier this year: "Too many penalties. Just let us play!!!"
Too many penalties. Bad calls. The rage increases during prime-time games, when everyone watching football has just one option. And it felt like it reached a fever pitch Monday during the Packers' larcenous 23-22 victory over Detroit.
The gifts to the Lambeau faithful are too numerous to run through one by one, but the biggest complaints were about two phantom illegal-hands-to-the-face calls that significantly hindered the Lions. What's most important is that after the game, even those with skin in the game — including mild-mannered Tony Dungy! — were jumping into the fray to get in their $0.02.
Former Packer Desmond Howard, who went to Michigan, was the most aggressive, insinuating that the game was fixed. He tweeted: "The refs need to be investigated. This is horrendous. Check bank accounts."
Barry Sanders, the former Lions great and like Dungy another mild-mannered guy when it comes to expressing opinions, had plenty of outrage. He wrote: "That is sickening ... the @NFL needs to look at a way to prevent that from happening. Two phantom hands to the face calls really hurts us tonight. Yes, we could have scored TDs, but @Lions played too well to have the game end this way."
At least the Detroit Free Press won Twitter with the best quip of all: "Final: Packers 23, Lions 22. Lions blow a 13-point lead, settle for 5 field goals and have multiple blown calls go against them but, on the bright side, in 5 billion years the sun will swell into a red giant, vaporize the Earth and obliterate all evidence of this game happening."
What's the solution? Well, I'm not sure MORE officiating is the answer, but a lot of well-intended football folks tend to like the idea of a "sky judge" — essentially another official working in the booth who has the benefit of replays and can help fix obvious mistakes in real time.
Like the pass interference reviews, I imagine this might have some unintended consequences and bog the game down. And the more you review things, the more you invite people to take sides. Clear and obvious sounds good in theory, but what's clear and obvious isn't the same for everyone.
How about this: A reboot of the officiating protocols with only the most egregious of every type of call getting made. Even the old standard of 16 penalties per game seems like a lot, and there are more than 18 per game this year. I could live with half that many and still favor review (and maybe even a booth official) for the obvious ones that were missed.
Fewer calls means less influence over an outcome in most cases, which means Desmond Howard probably won't be calling for criminal investigations. Let the players play, for the love of Brady, and there will be a lot less complaining from everyone.