Officiating isn’t easy. Fans don’t typically have favorite umpires or referees, and when an official does gain notoriety, it’s usually due to a botched call. When they’re doing their jobs correctly, nobody notices them.
For their part, fans understand that nobody’s perfect, and new technologies (such as instant replay review) have limited blown calls in recent years. Still, occasionally, a call is so egregiously bad that it ruins the game—and brings the legitimacy of an entire professional sports league into question.
St. Louis Blues fans are nodding their heads vigorously while reading this, so we’ll just jump into the list. Here are a few of the worst blown calls from the past few decades of professional sports (along with some details about the ensuing fallout).
1. The St. Louis Blues go down 1-2 on an obvious hand pass.
Let’s get the most recent botched call out of the way. Even if you don’t pay attention to sports, you’ve probably heard about this one—on May 14, the St. Louis Blues lost 5-4 to the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks’ final goal looked like this.
San Jose’s Timo Meier knocked the puck down with his hand, sending it towards his teammate. He was awarded an assist for the play.
“Hey,” you’re saying, “I didn’t know that hockey players could pass the puck with their hands.”
They can’t. Here’s the official language from the NHL rulebook (link opens a PDF):
79.1 Hand Pass – A player shall be permitted to stop or “bat” a puck in the air with his open hand, or push it along the ice with his hand, and the play shall not be stopped unless, in the opinion of the on-ice officials, he has directed the puck to a teammate, or has allowed his team to gain an advantage, and subsequently possession and control of the puck is obtained by a player of the offending team, either directly or deflected off any player or official.
In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not Meier touched the puck with other parts of his body after knocking it down with his hand: It’s still a hand pass, and therefore illegal. Unfortunately, hand passes are not reviewable plays, so the non-call stood.
Two days later, NHL Executive Vice President Colin Campbell stated that the on-ice officials missed the call. The league removed all four officials from the remainder of the playoffs.
Time will tell whether the blown call affects the Blues’ Stanley Cup hopes, but it certainly cost them an important game in a best-of-seven series.
Pietrangelo on the non-call on the hand pass: “I really didn’t get an explanation other than I guess there’s a different set of rules for two different teams, so I’m sure they’ll lose some sleep tonight after looking at it. But that's all I'm going to say about it."
— Jim Thomas (@jthom1) May 16, 2019
St. Louis fans are, predictably, angry about the call. The morning after the game, the St. Louis Eye Institute offered free LASIK eye surgery to the four men officiating the game, and a Blues fan set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for the St. Louis Society for the Blind and Visually Impaired in honor of ref Marc Joannette.
Petty? Sure, but at least Blues fans know how to voice their displeasure in a (somewhat) constructive way.
2. Armando Galarraga loses a perfect game on a call that wasn’t really close.
The perfect game is one of the most difficult achievements in sports. A pitcher must prevent batters from reaching base via any means; no walks, no hits, and no errors that allow a baserunner.
On June 2, 2010, only 20 pitchers had thrown perfect games in the history of Major League Baseball. Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers was on his way to becoming the 21st. In the 9th inning, he’d completely shut down the Cleveland Indians’ offense. He had two outs—and when Indians shortstop Jason Donald hit a slow roller on the first-base side, the perfect game seemed locked down.
Then, this happened:
Donald was out by almost a full step, but first-base umpire Jim Joyce missed the call. Donald was officially safe, and the perfect game was lost. Galarraga retired the next batter, so according to the official scorecard, he faced 28 batters and allowed one hit.
To his credit, Joyce apologized immediately after reviewing replays—something that MLB umpires don’t do very often. Galarraga accepted his apology, and the two even wrote a book together (called, appropriately, Nobody’s Perfect). Their conduct was widely seen as a shining example of good sportsmanship.
Jim Joyce was man enough to face the press after he missed the call that cost Gallaraga a perfect game. I have so much respect for him. It’s a hard thing to do but the right thing to do.
— Brad Range (@RangeBrad) May 16, 2019
While that’s nearly a happy ending, it’s worth noting that this was the last season in which Galarraga appeared in more than 10 MLB games. Two years after his infamous performance, he was pitching in international leagues—this game will always be the highlight of his career, for better and worse.
The call also followed Joyce to the end of his career.
“I think about it still, almost every day,” Joyce told ESPN seven months after the game. “I don’t want to be known as Jim Joyce, the guy that blew the perfect game. But I think that’s inevitable. Because I’m Jim Joyce, the umpire who blew the perfect game.”
3. The New Orleans Saints lose after pass interference (then sue the NFL).
On Jan. 20, 2019, the New Orleans Saints took on the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship game. Receiver Tommylee Lewis had a chance to catch a pass in the fourth quarter of the game, but Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman had other plans.
Yeah. That was pass interference. pic.twitter.com/niV9z2rnJi
— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) January 20, 2019
To Saints fans (and to pretty much every NFL fan outside of Los Angeles), that’s clear pass interference. The officials didn’t call it, and instead of a possible touchdown, the Saints settled for a field goal. The Rams would go on to win the game.
According to Saints coach Sean Payton, the league office called him after the game and told him they’d blown it.
“Just getting off the phone with the league office. They blew the call,” Payton said. “Man, there were a lot of opportunities though, but that call puts it first-and-10 and we’d only need three plays. It’s a game-changing call. That’s where it’s at, so it’s disappointing. For a call like that not to be made, it’s just hard to swallow.”
Not content to sit back and watch the Rams play in (and lose) the Super Bowl, several Saints season-ticket holders filed a lawsuit against the NFL. Their goal was to get the NFL Commissioner’s Office to overturn the result.
Pass interference Rams v Saints 2018 conf finals
— Noah (@NoahHoffman8) May 16, 2019
“Because the officials on the field are humans, like the players and coaches, errors will happen,” the league’s attorneys wrote in a brief. “The NFL parties do not dispute that they have previously advised the Saints, including the club’s head coach, that one or more penalties for pass interference or illegal helmet-to-helmet contact were mistakenly not called late in the NFC Championship Game, and that the NFL would like its officials on the field to make these calls.”
The brief goes on to explain that the NFL commissioner can’t overturn the game, but there’s a silver lining for Saints fans: The NFL admitted that the non-call was wrong, in writing. That’s something, right?
4. The 1997 NLCS Game 5 was…something else.
MLB umpires arguably have more of an effect on the game than any other sports official. If an umpire has a wide strike zone, pitchers will have more ways to retire batters; a tight strike zone, on the other hand, will give a strong advantage to the offense.
On Oct. 12, 1997, the Florida Marlins defeated the Atlanta Braves in the first game of the National League Championship Series, partially due to an exceptional performance from pitcher Livan Hernandez, who struck out 17 Atlanta players. The problem was umpire Eric Gregg’s strike zone, which was, by some measures, one of the worst strike zones in playoff history.
The MLB doesn’t show overlay a strike zone into the game’s official highlight video. To get a sense of just how wide the strike zone was, we’re forced to show you this clip of someone filming their TV screen.
“I’m so damn mad I can’t even see right now,” Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. “I know I swung at a couple of pitches that were a foot outside. I asked Eric if they were strikes, and he said yes. I couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Some people work all their lives to get into [a postseason] situation. It’s frustrating when you’re not allowed to do your job.”
Baseball statistics site FanGraphs argues that it’s impossible to assess how bad the strike zone really was, since all of the batters in the video above are lefties—it’s possible that Gagne simply had a terrible strike zone for left-handed batters. Still, the Braves had six left-handed batters in their starting lineup that night, and they unquestionably suffered as a result of the bad calls.
In any case, Gregg never worked a postseason game again. He offered his resignation to the MLB as part of the 1999 umpire’s strike; rather than negotiate with the striking umpires, the MLB chose to accept their resignations, and Gregg was never rehired.
5. Dez Bryant makes a sweet non-catch.
When football fans hear the name “Dez Bryant,” they inevitably think about the Dallas Cowboys’ 2014 NFC playoff game against the Green Bay Packers. If those fans are also Dallas fans, their eyes start twitching.
Here are the basics: Wide receiver Dez Bryant caught the football, then transferred the ball to his dominant hand while diving for the goal line. During his dive, the ball bounced. Officials initially ruled it a catch…then changed their minds after a quick review. The catch wasn’t a catch, and the Cowboys lost the game.
“I just can’t believe it,” Bryant said after losing the game. “I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve never, ever seen nothing like that in my life.
Here’s what the NFL rulebook said at the time, per NBC Sports:
A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.
But in 2018, the NFL revised the rule to clarify what a “catch” actually meant. Under the new definition, Bryant’s catch would have been a legal catch—and the NFL clearly intended for the rule change to prevent similar blown calls in the future.
6. Phil Luckett can’t read a coin (except he could, but…okay, it’s complicated).
NFL officials have a lot to think about. They have to know proper hand signals, they have to be able to interpret the rulebook, and they have to…toss coins.
Hey, it’s (apparently) not as easy as it sounds. On Thanksgiving Day in 1998, the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers faced off at the Silverdome, and at the end of regulation, they were tied at 16. NFL official Phil Luckett tossed a coin to determine possession, and Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis called “tails.” The stadium crowd clearly heard Bettis’ call, as did the national television announcers.
Luckett flipped the coin, which landed on tails…and awarded the toss to the Lions, who elected to receive. Pittsburgh fans were immediately outraged, and their anger grew when the Lions’ Jason Hanson booted a 42-yard field goal to give Detroit the win.
After the game, Luckett explained his reasoning: Bettis had actually started to call “heads” before switching to “tails.”
“That is a lie,” Bettis said. “That’s a baldfaced lie.”
“What makes me mad is when you fight and scratch for 60 minutes out there, and the game is decided by guys who wear striped shirts,” Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. “There’s something wrong about that.”
In the minds of most NFL fans, this game is the ultimate example of poor officiating. However, Luckett was right; enhanced recordings from the field showed that Bettis called “hea…tails.” Luckett did his job, honoring Pittsburgh’s first selection and ignoring the second.
Our annual Thanksgiving public service announcement:
Phil Luckett was righthttps://t.co/jL7vWhuZ5r
— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) November 25, 2016
So, why is this on a list of heartbreaking calls? For the rest of his career, Luckett was known as the guy who missed the easiest call imaginable. That wasn’t the case—he was simply doing his job, and he was castigated by NFL fans, players, and even broadcasters.
Maybe officiating isn’t so easy, after all.