The National Championship game will have officials from the Pac-12 conference. There will not be any teams from the Pac-12 in the playoff, so this should be a good thing, right? Well, maybe, but why does it matter? Why does it matter where the officials come from?
Officials Impact Games
This matters because referees impact the game. They aren’t supposed to, but they do. They are supposed to be impartial enforcers of the rules. They are there to ensure the game is played according to the rules. It’s a simple idea, but in practice, it’s much more complicated.
There are so many rules and so many gray areas that an official’s job isn’t just as simple as watching one player and determining if his actions were legal. He has to watch many players and he misses some penalties. Illegal actions take place that aren’t called because they aren’t seen. Illegal actions take place and aren’t called because the official decides not to call it.
Think of how many penalties are subjective. Everyone knows about targeting, but also think about holding and pass interference. The manner in which an official or officiating crew decides to enforce these, or not, changes the game. It gives advantages to some teams and hurts others. An officiating crew that decides not to call very many holding penalties will help the offense. It will especially help an overmatched offense. It will level the playing field. Officiating decisions have large impacts on games, and that’s just when they are getting them right. What about mistakes?
Mistakes happen all the time. It’s not just a matter of, “we decided to let them play”. Mistakes happen constantly. Last weekend North Carolina was called offsides on an onsides kick when everyone was clearly onside. That’s especially memorable since it happened right at the end of a major game, but the mistakes are prevalent in every game.
The problem isn’t with the mistakes, per se. It is with our attitude toward the mistakes. Players are conditioned to believe that officials don’t decide games; players decide games. This is mostly true, but it ignores reality. Officials’ calls and non-calls, especially at the end of games, change the game. They make it more or less likely a team wins. Failure to acknowledge this or paying lip service to it doesn’t uphold the integrity of the game. It undermines it.
Undermining the Game
The game can only survive if it is honest. Players will only want to play if the game isn’t fixed. Fans will tune in even if it isn’t fixed. The very existence of the game rests on the premise that the outcome is not predetermined. Let’s be clear: the games’ outcomes are not predetermined. There is no conspiracy. The shortcomings of officials are not the result of concerted effort.
It’s important to be clear about the impact of officials on a game. Many fans of the game don’t want to talk about the impact officials have. In their minds acknowledging the role officials play in determining outcomes undermines the game. They fear that if we recognize the shortcomings and the part these officials play, we will call in to question the legitimacy of the sport.
I disagree. I think the integrity of the sport is grounded in its honesty. It must be honest in the sense that the teams on the field should determine the outcome, as much as they can. It must be honest that other factors, which are not intentional, affect that outcome. Too many people, who mean well and love the game, would rather pretend that “it all evens out” or “only the players and coaches matter”. That’s simply not true.
We all know it.
It’s not true, and we all know. We don’t all like to talk about it, but we all know that officials matter. It’s why which officials are being used is a story. If the officials didn’t impact the game, why would anyone care which conference the officials come from?
Saying officials impact the game is not the same as saying officials cheat. It’s not the same thing as saying the game lacks integrity. It’s not the same thing as officials are out to get one team or help the other.
There are issues in college football and in officiating. Too many calls are blown. Too many mistakes impact games, and those need to be addressed. They need to be addressed publicly and transparently. The integrity of the game demands that we acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that officiating matters. We all know it does; we just don’t like to acknowledge it.