Blown calls are why we all watch sports. The human element, as everyone is so fond to fetishize, is what makes sports enjoyable. We all love when rules aren’t followed as written and players’ athleticism takes a back seat to a third party’s judgment. It’s what makes America great. And England OK and France terrible.
As such, I wanted to honor the true heroes of sports fandom, the officials who fully dove into said human element. These guys didn’t screw up, they just honored the beautiful ancestry of sporting times past when contact lenses didn’t exist and glasses were for nerds. Don’t think of this list as breaking down the worst calls in sports history, but rather view it as the best celebrations of athletic theatre of the absurd.
With that thick slather of sarcasm out of the way, let’s address the rules of this list.
The top image for this article is Joey Crawford because I feel he is the embodiment of poor officiating and therefore should be the poster child for this piece. He was not a bad ref in the sense of making calls; in fact, he was pretty good at that. But he was demonstrative, sensitive, egomaniacal and self-absorbed — the antithesis of what an official should be. So, though he did not make many “bad calls” in the traditional sense, he will feature heavily on this list because he was the worst ref ever IMO. I digress.
The most unfathomably bad calls ever, that’s why we’re here. For our purposes, I am not talking about huge blown calls with massive stakes like Jim Joyce blowing Armando Galarraga’s perfect game. At least that call was within two feet of being right. I’m talking calls that are so inexplicably off base that it makes one wonder whether these officials exist in our same reality.
Kevin Durant’s Out-of-Bounds “Save”
I mean, he’s clearly three feet out of bounds. His shoes are white against a yellow floor. There is no mistaking how not in bounds Kevin Durant is. And then it’s made worse by the fact that it directly leads to a clutch Steph Curry bucket. It is also one of the best examples of the classic James Harden indignant look, the blank stare that is simultaneously vapid and full of every emotion I’ve ever felt for sports.
Bang …………. Bang Play at the Plate
This is borderline because A) I think this play is remembered for the stakes, i.e. a walk-off missed call, and B) I can fathom what the umpire saw here. The swipe tag gives the impression that it missed because of how quickly the catcher sweeps across the leg. But still, from where the ump is standing, given how much the throw beat Julio Lugo by, and seeing Lugo’s reaction of pure elated shock when he realizes he’s “safe,” it’s clear there was only one person in the building who thought the run should score.
Look, it may seem like I’m breaking my own rule by including high-stakes plays that may not be quite as memorable were it in a regular-season game, but sometimes key moments have some of the least fathomable blown calls. This call has no plausible explanation, and it also just so happened to change the course of a postseason. The rule is called “Infield Fly.” Therefore, when the ball is 100 feet into the outfield, it cannot be an “infield fly.” It’s common sense.
The ump clearly made the call off the bat, misjudging the depth and making a snap decision, which goes against everything I learned as a 14-year-old umpire. Of course, back then, I also got yelled at by many parents for keeping a tight strike zone on the 8-year-olds. Hey, if they wanted us to call strikes on a ball six inches outside, they would have made the plate, I don’t know, six inches wider?
Nickell Robey-Coleman Bends Time
Stakes don’t make this play any worse either. While yes, this play is 100 times as famous and 1,000 times as impactful because it came in the waning moments of the NFC Championship Game and directly led to the Rams winning (or at least not losing on that drive), it is also arguably the most blatant non-PI call in the history of the rule being enforced. At full speed it was obvious. Slowed down it was egregious. The call was so bad that it forced the NFL into a rule change that they totally stuck to and it was a rousing success. Of any “controversial” call with high stakes, this is just about the only one I can remember that had not a single soul defending a no-call.
This ruling was so atrocious that it made a preseason game memorable. It also made the NFL roughly 800% more willing to concede to striking referees. And then there was one further consequence, something I will believe until the day I die: Just like the Tuck Rule Game made Tom Brady, Russell Wilson would not exist in his current form without the confidence boost of this lucky swing in fortune.
Without question the funniest thing to ever happen on a football field.
With sudden death uvertime still determining NFL outcomes, the coin toss has insane stakes, so it’s vital that the official gets it right. It’s pretty hard to screw up, just flip a dang coin and hear what a guy says. And somehow Pihl Luckett couldn’t get it right. Luckett making an honest mistake in hearing would be understandable, but by all indications, that’s not what happened. Rather, his analysis is that Bettis said Heads first then Tails, and doubled down on it in real time.
Lucket: Call it.
Luckett: Heads is the call.
Bettis: I said Tails.
Luckett: He said Heads.
And Bettis with the immediate “this motherfucker” look to camera. Luckett did the rarely tried zero-seconds-later gaslight, and by god, it worked. The Lions won in overtime. His report said he believed Bettis was trying to deceive by saying both Heads and Tails, but for the life of me, I cannot hear anything remotely resembling “Heads” coming out of Bettis’ mouth.
I actually wonder how this doesn’t happen more, especially at the college level. In frantic last-minute drives, I can kind of see how officials can lose track of spikes and the down marker on the stick. Of course, that doesn’t really apply in this situation given that there was a timeout in between second and third down, therefore adequate time to cover the bases. But in a vacuum, I can understand this happening, at least in low-level college.
Here is how a fifth down was awarded in this situation with Colorado driving down 4.
First down: Spike
Second down: Run to the 1-yard line
Third down (marked second down): Run for a loss
Fourth down (marked third down): Spike
Fifth Down (marked fourth down): QB keeper for touchdown
The crazy part is that the announcers also didn’t acknowledged in the broadcast that a fifth down was awarded, even suggesting Colorado spike after the third-down run for loss. After the touchdown was scored on fifth down, officials figured out they had messed up and talked about it for 20 minutes. But they just decided “screw it” and gave Colorado the touchdown. To this day, there has been no good explanation as to why they didn’t overturn the touchdown. Oh, and side note, the QB may not have even gotten into the end zone on the final run, but that’s another discussion.
Insert Bob Uecker Quote Here
What’s the best restaurant in Arlington? Whatever it is, that’s where the umpire had reservations for sure. This pitch is so low and away that A.J. Pierzynski did not even make a half-assed attempt to frame it. At least Joe Nathan is self aware enough to openly say “wow’ in the moment. Let’s return to the era of calling our own balls and strikes and eliminate plate umpires altogether, I say.
Todd Held(ton) the Bag
This guy got called out… Todd Helton only got pulled off the bag by eight feet. pic.twitter.com/NfoCp5FR
— Jacob Pratt (@Jacob_in_385) May 2, 2012
I mean, eight feet is a bit of an exaggeration. It’s not like Helton needed both feet on first for it to count. But yeah, that’s a chasm to be sure.
Joey Crawford Hates Timmy’s Smile
And now it’s time for the Joey Crawford being a jackass part of the list. Do ejections count as “calls”? I’m saying yes in this case because Crawford ejected Tim Duncan for laughing on the bench, which is coincidentally why I was impeached as a judge and disbarred in the state of Illinois.
You can see Timmy in the background during the free throw when he got his first technical. I don’t know if he said something to Crawford, but he sure as hell was not looking at him. Then Crawford, his feewings hurt, turned on his Timmy sensor and felt when Duncan started cackling at him again, even though Crawford was roughly 60 feet away from him.
And here’s the tragedy in it all. We rarely see Timmy smile. Punishing him when he expresses a fleeting moment of joy is just going to exacerbate his desire to withdraw. If Duncan fails to fully develop as a player, I blame Joey Crawford.
Crawford Also Hates Chauncey Billups
I got to hand it to Joey Crawford; no one on earth is quicker on the draw when they need to blame someone else for their own mistakes. Others will make excuses in the moment then search for someone else to blame, but Crawford went from “oops, I fucked up” to “it’s Chauncey’s fault” in the span of 0.3 seconds. Presidential levels of buck passing.
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