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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Are American sports leagues rigged?

Officiating controversies in recent NFL and NBA games have sports fans crying out for an investigation into referees of both leagues. These incidents are not the first of their kind; They are the final straws in a ballooning pattern of questionable officiating that seem to have broken the backs of American sports fans. 

On Jan. 28, the Lakers fell to the Boston Celtics in a nationally televised game that the Lakers should’ve won. With time winding down in regulation, Lebron James was clearly fouled on a layup attempt that would’ve otherwise sealed the game. The Lakers awaited the whistle that would’ve given James two attempts to win the contest from the free throw line, but it never came. Instead, the game went to overtime and the Celtics won by 4. The next day, the Cincinnati Bengals suffered from a late onslaught of questionable referee decisions that contributed to their loss against the Kansas City Chiefs in the American Football Conference Championship game. One such decision, and probably the most clearly incorrect one, was a missed illegal block in the back of a defender on a late Chiefs punt return. The correct call in this instance would’ve resulted in a ten yard penalty against the Chiefs, who ended up needing every yard they had for their 45-yard field goal attempt that won the game on the same drive. 

In response to these decisions, fans have claimed that the games are rigged and are demanding an investigation into the referees of the two respective leagues. Freak officiating accidents during the regular season can be reasonably forgiven. However, when similarly poor calls are made in a win-or-go-home situation, like the AFC Championship game, or when the affected team happens to have suffered from similar calls recently, like the Lakers have, people are bound to take notice and demand better. An investigation would certainly not be a bad thing, but match-fixing is extremely unlikely to be the source of recent frustrating decisions. A far more likely culprit is the inconsistency and ambiguity involved in the use of technology to referee these games. 

In both the NBA and NFL, coaches are allowed to challenge calls made during the game. When they initiate the challenge, referees review the play and may change their call. This is helpful and can eliminate incorrect decisions made by the referees. However, there are still imperfections that have the potential to lead to major frustration. First of all, not everything can be challenged. Notably, an NBA coach can try to have a foul call revoked, but they cannot ask for a foul to be retrospectively awarded. For this reason, there is nothing that the referees in the recent Lakers game could have done to review the no-call that the NBA referees’ Twitter account later apologized for. This same problem exists in the NFL. The missed illegal blocking foul against the Bengals late in the Chiefs win could simply not have been fixed. Many types of plays are reviewable and challengeable, but penalties like this one are not. 

Another issue is the cap on the number of challenges that a coach can make during the game. NBA coaches are allowed to challenge one call per game; even if the challenge is successful, they don’t have any left for the remainder of the game and are once again vulnerable to calls that unfairly harm their team. This cap exists in the NFL as well; coaches are only allowed two challenges per game, though they are allowed a third if their first two are both successful. In both leagues, there are thus plays that are officiated in real time as well as plays that are officiated retrospectively using technology, and there are not very logical guidelines for which ones belong in which category. Technology is supposed to be used to fix mistakes that human referees make, but it is not always allowed to do so. 

This in-between zone, where technology is used to officiate some plays and not others, creates an environment that is bound to benefit one team on any given day, and this will continue to frustrate fans. There are two immediately achievable ways to reduce the inconsistency that accompanies the sporadic use of technology, though each comes with its own set of problems. First of all, referees could officiate every play in real time without the use of technology. This option would eliminate the inconsistent bias that the sporadic use of technology creates, but less deserving teams would also be able to get away with more rule-breaking. Referees could also review every single play, and while this would eliminate the vast majority of incorrect calls, it would also cause more delays during games and probably reduce the sport’s entertainment factor. Additionally, this could hurt stadium atmospheres; nothing is more mood-killing for fans and players than celebrating a game-winning goal, touchdown or basket, only for it to be overturned a couple minutes later. 

To give referees the right to overturn even more calls and to expand the set of plays that can be challenged is to prioritize the fair allocation of wins and to dismiss the value of entertainment and the passion that fans and players have for the sport. On the other hand, to prevent referees from reviewing anything is to salvage the fast-flowing, edge-of-your-seat entertainment and emotion that the games provide and to sacrifice some amount of merit. Personally, I’ve always been drawn to sports by the loud atmospheres, celebrations and the passion that athletes and fans have for their teams. Sports are more fun for athletes, entertaining for fans and profitable for franchises when games have limited interruptions, irrevocable goals and real-time and immediate emotions. You may feel that the intrinsic value of sports is more tied to the fair allocation of wins, and this view lends itself to an expansion of the number and types of plays that can be reviewed. This would also work better than the way our leagues currently do it, but though it may be old school, I’m willing to sacrifice that fairness for the old emotion and entertainment that these sports can provide. Either way, investigate the refs, but don’t be surprised if nothing changes until the way our leagues use technology does as well.

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