Poor officiating casts a shadow on the fairness of competitive sports

February 8, 2024 — by Jeremy Si
Photo by Jeremy Si
 I passed the volleyball in an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) tournament in Chicago on Nov. 19, 2022.
Shortage of officials is a constant problem in most high school sports.

In the midst of an exciting last set during a single-elimination match of the 2023 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Junior National Volleyball tournament in July, the outside hitter on my team (Mountain View Volleyball Club 15 Red) appeared to hit the ball out of bounds. My teammates and I thought we lost the match 14-13. 

However, the confused line referee hesitated and called the ball in. The spectators supporting the opposing side descended into pandemonium and shouted at the referee as their hopes for an assured victory were suddenly extinguished, while the players on our team sighed in relief at the lucky (and bad) call that saved the game. Despite these blown calls, my team lost the next two points and still fell short of winning the game.

On the one hand, it’s easy to take pity on referees. They are pressured to make instinctive, split-second decisions that sometimes act like a spark in a powder keg, angering players, coaches and fans who then lash out at them. Although the referee’s bad call in my volleyball tournament match didn’t change the final outcome, it brings to light a larger issue: Referees are often ill-trained and skew the results of games with their bad calls. 

Beyond officiating calls during plays, referees also have to accurately determine the severity of a player’s offense. Oftentimes, when it comes to handing out penalties such as yellow cards and red cards for fouls and misconduct, the unfair distribution of penalties can limit a player’s participation and thus drastically change the results of a game. 

My experience with unfair referee calls 

During one  boys’ varsity volleyball game last year, our team reacted in disbelief at a controversial call — a ball was called out by the referee when the line referee called it in. Senior Eric Norris on our bench abruptly stood up from his seat with his mouth wide open in astonishment and was, for no apparent reason, handed a red card.

In volleyball, red cards are handed out for severe disciplinary action or a second offense after a yellow card; however, prior to the call, no one on the team had gotten a yellow card in the match, and without any chance of questioning and confirming the call with the line referees, the point was given to the other team.

The lack of attentiveness and experience from line referees is one of the most frustrating parts of playing volleyball at the junior level. Unlike paid professional line referees, amateur players — and in some cases, parents — have to volunteer to be line referees at other volleyball games, impacting crucial calls of the game with their varying levels of experience and understanding of the game rules. Sometimes players and coaches also detect a bias in the way games are called, adding another layer of anger and frustration into the mix of emotions during tense games.

In varsity high school games, line referees are chosen from the home JV team. At the very least, this practice can lead to accusations of bias in favor of the home team; in club volleyball, games are refereed by other teams in the same bracket. Sometimes the perception is that the refereeing team is making calls in order to give themselves an advantage in case of any ties where the winner is determined by their set wins and points. However, the problem of potentially biased referees affects all officiated sports. 

Poor judgment from referees permeates all sports 

Sophomore basketball player Cole Mason is one of many athletes who has had a negative experience with a referee. Mason recalls that during the fourth quarter of an AAU basketball game in 2021 during bracket play, one of his teammates went for a shot, and an opposing defender ran straight into his legs and knocked him over. However, the referee did not call a foul, and they went into overtime, where they ultimately lost the game 49-45. After the fourth quarter, Mason and his team, the Silicon Valley Warriors, shook their heads in disbelief, as they felt that they had just been robbed of a deserved win by the no call.

Sophomore football player Brennan Pak, a linebacker and running back on the school’s varsity football team, ran into a similar situation during the school’s 2023 senior night football game against Jefferson High. As the game clock ticked away, players thought that their defense had successfully stopped the opposing team’s fourth-and-one conversions on multiple occasions.  Instead, the side judge seemed to spot the ball incorrectly and gave them first downs.

As the game neared its end with a score of 7-6 in favor of the Falcons, Jefferson’s quarterback took a knee with 11 seconds left. Then, the clock appeared to run out. The Falcon fans on the bleachers erupted in triumph, thinking they had won, but the referees made the questionable decision of resetting the clock back to 11 seconds, allowing the Grizzlies to kick a winning field goal. The scoreboard read 9-7, and Falcon fans, players and coaches felt as if they had been robbed of a deserved victory.

Are referees getting worse?

According to a 2023 survey, among officials who have worked at the high school level, almost 70% said officiating was getting worse. A likely reason for this trend is the shortage of referees and the overwhelming demand for them. As per a 2023 survey for another large group of officials, nearly 37 percent indicated that they felt pressure to accept more games, and 14 percent said they were feeling burned out. This obligation to work multiple times per week may affect their ability to referee well.

This shortage of referees may be caused by a multitude of factors, such as verbal abuse from spectators and low pay.

History teacher Jerry Sheehy, who now coaches the boys’ JV basketball team and has coached basketball on and off since the ‘90s, said players, fans and parents need to do more to make refereeing a positive experience, and they can’t be as critical as they used to be. 

“Parents, players, families and coaches need to realize that’s a problem,” he said. “And that we need to encourage people to get into refereeing, not discourage them. You have to learn to control your behavior, and I think this fan behavior doesn’t encourage people to join refereeing. We may not always agree with their calls, but you can’t play the game without a referee. They don’t get paid to be verbally abused.” 

The issue of biased and inconsistent referees proves to be detrimental to the results of all sports games, as they not only give a score advantage and alter the results of the game but can also affect the mental state of the players, who know that the odds are stacked against them.

In the case of the school’s football team, the loss on senior night was devastating to the team.

“We were all very disappointed because we knew we were stripped of a well-deserved win,” Pak said. “We felt like the week of practice leading up to the game and all the hype around it was for nothing.”

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