Ranking the referees in major North American sports

The officials in professional sports probably receive more criticism and scrutiny than anyone in sports outside of the players, and even that’s debatable.

Today I’m here to rank the officials in the major sports in North America, but please not that despite these criticisms I think officials do actually do a very good job. It’s not easy trying to make instant decisions during high-pressure situations being played by the world’s greatest athletes.

Without further ado, here we go.

6. College Basketball

Where to even begin. For as good as I think NBA refs are (more on them in a bit) is as bad as college basketball refs are. Part of that is the new NCAA rules that limit hand-checking, forcing them to call 80 fouls each game, and part of that is they flat out just don’t know the rules.

If you want to see mass confusion in college basketball, just wait for a block/charge call. there is almost no chance that an NCAA ref will get it right.

Making it even worse is there are more than 300 NCAA Division I basketball teams and countless others at lower levels, so even if there are a bunch of good officials, that talent gets spread insanely thin, and when you have more bad refs than good refs calling games, it gets to be the norm.

5. NFL

Nobody misses more calls than NFL officials. And I’m not sure if that’s on purpose, not knowing the rules, or a combination of the two.

Just last night Jordy Nelson blatantly pushed off an Eagles defender late in the game and it resulted in him being open and making critical first down catch.

The thing that’s most upsetting about the NFL is there will be games where flags fly everywhere…and then they miss a blatant call 10 feet in front of them.

The other big gripe I have, is every call in the NFL goes to the offense. I know fans like seeing points and big plays, but it’s pathetic to the point that any defender who breathes on an offensive player is flagged for pass interference or holding or whatever and gives the offense a free first down. The only offensive penalty that ever gets called is holding.

4. College Football

Pretty much everything listed about the NFL, except there is something charming about it being college and, “letting the boys play.”

3. MLB

MLB umpires probably face more hatred and screaming from fans than any other officials in any other sport, mainly because old white people have nothing better to do with their time.

Some of it is deserved, but most of it is not. It’s not easy essentially watching a 30-yard dash and a ball fly across the field, reaching the base at nearly the same time and having to make a decision based on sight and sound.

Where MLB gets most of its criticism and screaming is from the home plate umpire, who depending on how he calls a game can give the other three to six umps out there a bad name.

The home plate umpire is involved in every pitch and the strike zone is still the one thing in baseball that cannot be overturned by replay, it’s solely up to human discretion. Some times the zone is 5-6 inches off the plate and everybody screams. Other times the ball appears to go clearly over the outside corner and they call it a ball. And in some games they call it both ways with no warning.

Again though, it’s not easy to track a 97 mph fastball that cuts back four inches at the last second. Hell, if hitters can’t judge whether they should swing at it, and they’re in their physical prime, then it can’t be easy for umpires.

2. NBA

NBA officials do a very good job calling a game featuring the largest humans on earth who also happen to play at the fastest speed. They also have to do that in a very small space where people are constantly bumping into each other or making subtle contact.

To the average fan at home they see most NBA fouls and wonder what the hell they called, because it doesn’t look like the guy driving to the basket was even touched. I’ll tell you from my experiences officiating high school and IM basketball that when you are on the court it’s much easier to see those bumps and slaps that fans in the stands and watching on TV can’t see. I will say that they still do call too many fouls though, often times anticipating calls rather than reacting to what actually happens.

My biggest gripe about the NBA, aside from calling too many fouls, is that they absolutely pander to the stars. The NBA knows where their money comes from, and it isn’t the Pistons or Kings or whatever other team without a superstar. LeBron, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry all seem to get every call and that in turn makes it easier for those teams to win more games in the regular season and playoffs.

1. NHL

NHL refs, at least in my view, are the most consistent, most fair and just best all-around. If there is a blatant penalty, they call it 99 percent of the time, regardless of what player or team commits the penalty.

And they have to do it all while skating and watching 12 other players who a flying around at speeds faster than any other sport.

They don’t pander to stars (though they may pander to the NHL’s big franchises),but I will say, if you like the refs to call every penalty, the NHL may drop down a few spots on the list.

While the NFL just flat out misses plays or penalties, the NHL often chooses just to ignore them, opting to let the teams play and settle the game rather than have an official’s decision potentially have a hand in determining the outcome. This is doubly true come playoff time where you borderline have to assault someone to draw a penalty, especially in overtime.

So that’s my list. Thoughts? Complaints? Approval? I’d have judged MLS but I don’t watch enough of soccer’s equivalent of Double-A baseball to know how good or bad their refs are.


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