Butterflies and Officiating in Professional Sports

In life, answers and concrete evidence are critical for any successful venture. For example, the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, has multiple reports and findings to sift through before determining the best plan of action for the prominent company. He examines profits, losses, technological ideas, advancements and hundreds of graphs and tables before finally levying his decision. While he may have 99/100 reports tell him one thing, he may still choose to side with the single discerning opinion if he believes in it hard enough. Sports fans can very much relate to this example.

Zach Ertz diving for the end zone in Super Bowl 52, via Gregory Shamus

As sports fans, we need answers almost immediately. Whether it be a decisive win or a crushing defeat, fans want to know why the outcome occurred the way it did. When the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 52, fans of the Eagles were quick to analyze all the contributions of their talented stars, while the Patriots’ fanbase were left scratching their heads wondering what went wrong. In 2019, where all the information you could want and more is readily available, some simply choose to ignore statistics and factual information. They side with the 1/100 opinion- blame it on an outside factor. The main source of outside blame is almost always officiating.

I want to preface this article by stating this: I in no way believe officiating is perfect or without flaw. There are hundreds of mistakes made all season long across multiple professional sports. The example that is seared into many New Orleans Saints fans’ memories is the blown pass interference call in the 2019 NFC Championship game. Another example is the botched play against Dallas Goedert when the Philadelphia Eagles played the Dallas Cowboys last season. However, all too often we want to throw challenge flags at officials for their poor performance when the weak showing was from the team itself.

The MLB has made great advancements in instant replay, via AP

Officials at all levels receive almost no praise and almost all the blame. Athletes tend to view them as crazy, absurd and unpredictable. We believe official have been poor, still are poor and will continue to be poor for years to come. Over time, officiating actually has evolved and even found ways to improve upon itself. The MLB has cleaned up some of its mistakes by utilizing instant replays and challenges. In fact, technology has contributed to many major sports in the realm of officiating. Despite the fact that human error will always be present, we seem to want to condemn every official to prison just for one call we disagree with. Honestly consider this question: why be an official?

The evil Monstars from Space Jam, via Villains Wiki

Many officials are former players themselves. They either volunteer their time or officiate in return for monetary compensation. Officials are not these dastardly, cruel creatures like the “Monstars” who seek to destroy the sport; rather, they do it because they love the sport itself. I sincerely believe that the vast majority of officials are honest, dedicated and committed to the best possible atmosphere surrounding the sport. The majority really do try their absolute hardest. A lot of plays occur so quickly it’s hard to make an accurate and confident decision. Many fans make the argument that just one changed call would flip the script on who won the game; however, that claim is wildly untrue.

The Butterfly Effect in time travel is my main argument against that ideology. The Butterfly Effect shows how just one small event in the past- in this example, squishing a butterfly in the past- can dramatically alter the future in unpredicted ways. Instead of changing that play in question, let’s look at a different one. Just one additional holding call on first-down changes the new play the team runs on first down. That new play could have a multitude of outcomes- a fumble, interception, touchdown (for either side) or an injury- none of which occurred if that previous penalty was not called. That new first-down play effects the new second-down play and so on. The new drive, which wouldn’t have occurred with out the additional penalty, alters the time and situation for the rest of every single other occurrence during the game. If that plays is “too insignificant”, let’s examine the effect on a much larger play.

Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman committed a blatant interference penalty with a helmet-to-helmet hit on Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis late in the fourth quarter, but the referees did not call it
The missed PI call on Nickell Robey Coleman, via AP

Nickell Robey Coleman should have received a pass interference call in the 2019 NFC Championship game; however, it wasn’t called. Does adding that one call guarantee success for the Saints? The answer is absolutely not. For arguments’ sake, let’s assume the Saints receive the call. There is no guarantee the Saints score during that drive. While it is highly likely, it isn’t a set-in-stone fact. The Saints could have fumbled, thrown an interception or even missed the field goal. The Saints also received the ball in overtime and threw an interception ultimately cost them the game. That one play didn’t give or take away victory because each game is made of hundreds of plays.

Al Pachino delivering a fiery speech in Any Given Sunday, via News Limited

132 total plays were run in the NFC Championship game. Is it really logical to say that 1/132 ( .76% of the game) dictated the entire outcome? While fans want to chastise the officials for “blowing the entire game”, did they consider the Saints had a 13-0 lead and lost it? Did they consider the Saints let Jared Goff, who played abysmally just two weeks later, have the best game of his career? Did they notice the Rams had virtually no run game and still were able to move the ball? Every single game is decided by hundreds of different moments. The smallest margin can mean the difference between success and failure. Al Pachino in Any Given Sunday said, “We know when we add up all those inches
that’s going to make the f——- difference between winning and losing, between living and dying”.

We need to start treating officials like human beings again. While some do deserve criticism and adjustment, not all officials deserve the verbal abuse and mistreatment they receive. Officials are just as vital as the athletes themselves; these sports couldn’t occur without them. When a team loses, we can throw some blame on officials, after all human error is unavoidable, but we need to heap the majority of the criticism upon the team itself. I was insanely furious when Dallas Goedert was flagged, but that call didn’t justify the whole game being ruined. The Cowboys played better than the Eagles, and they eventually won because of it. Instead of finding a scapegoat, teams need to look deeper into the mirror and to notice the real culprits for the losing effort are staring back at them.

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