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Let’s Hold NFL Refs Accountable

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Houston Texans v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

There’s no way around it: we’re pretty divided right now as a country. That said, no matter what your opinions are on issues that have absolutely zero business being discussed on a sports blog, I’d like to think that there are a few universal truths that we can all agree on and fully get behind:

  • Your mother makes the world’s best meatloaf
  • You have the best dog on the planet
  • Kelly Kapowski and Zack Morris are the greatest TV couple of all time
  • Popping bubble wrap is awesome
  • If your team lost, more often than not it’s those damn refs who are to blame

Blaming the refs for a loss is a tradition as old as time itself. Back when the first cavemen played the first game of Caveball and the Neanderthals eked out a last second win over the Rock Biters, there was a whole faction of Biter fans who could only imagine how many wooly mammoth steaks the Neanderthals slipped the refs to get the game called in their favor. In the thousands of years since, little has really changed. We love to blame the refs for the failures of our teams, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. In truth, it’s usually the team that lost the game, not the refs, but nobody likes to hear that.

That said - as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. While the refs are, if we’re being honest, rarely the reason a game is won or lost, the reality is that referees make bad and controversial calls all the time. And yes, we cam all point to a number of times when a controversial call ended up directly costing one team the game. The Dez Bryant catch that wasn’t against the Packers in the playoffs immediately comes to mind, as does the DPI non-call against the Panthers when the Patriots last faced them. More recently, this last week saw a controversial end to the Lions/Falcons game and a questionable 15 yard flag on Von Miller against the Bills. The refs, and the flags they throw, are as much a part off football as touching butts with a stranger on an NYC subway during rush hour, and whether or not we agree with the calls ultimately doesn’t end up making a lick of difference.

What does make a difference, however, is that after a bad play or a poor coaching decision, players and coaches have to answer for their choices. They have to stand in front of the media and tell them why they decided to go for it on 4th and 2 or why they decided to pass on 2nd and goal with less than 30 seconds to play and Marshawn Lynch in the backfield. They have to relive their three interception, five sack performance and give reporters a few “I just have to play better” soundbytes for their columns the next day. And we, the hungry fans, hold our players and coaches highly accountable for the decisions they make, decisions that affect not only individual games, but the season as a whole.

Why don’t we get to do that for referees?

Shouldn’t a referee who blew a controversial whistle be required to justify his decisions? Shouldn’t we be allowed to question a call the same way we question a coach? Now that the NFL has full-time referees, they are right in the mix with all of the other full-time employees. And just because Roger Goodell gets to duck the media, that doesn’t mean that others should as well.

I’m not advocating for a ref who blew a call to stand at a podium and get crucified for his decision. Nor am I advocating for yet another press conference every week where a ref has to justify a holding call or some tickytack illegal hands to the face penalty. What I am advocating for, however, is for referees to be held accountable for their decisions, and when there’s a highly contested/controversial/unusual call, that referee should be required to explain his rationale for throwing/not throwing the flag at that moment. I know I would love to hear why a ref made a call that day, right after that particular game, rather than have to wait until Wednesday before getting a canned response from the league that doesn’t make anybody happy. I don’t even care if the ref goes full Belichick and says ‘I make the calls that I think will best represent fundamental fairness of the game” after every question, to be honest; I just feel like a ref whose flag is the center of conversation for several days - even several weeks - afterwards should have the opportunity to explain himself, defend himself, or maybe even admit that he got the call wrong.

Could you imagine that? An NFL ref admitting he made a bad call? What a dream.

Again, I don’t expect refs to call a perfect game. There will always be calls you disagree with, always be teams and players that aren’t your favorite teams and players that the refs love to hand the game to, and I wouldn’t want to change that. Ideally, officiating would never decide the outcome of a game - but sometimes, whether we like it or not, it does. And when that does happen, the ref who made that call should have the obligation, and the right, to explain his thinking. Even if we disagree with it vehemently, holding his feet to the fire will ultimately result in a net positive for all of us.

Will it ever happen? Sure - just as soon as the NFL gets rid of Thursday Night Football, figures out what a catch is, and releases the results from that PSI study they did a few years back.