OPINION: Stern: Pro sports have an officiating problem

Photo credit Sam Greene-USA TODAY Sports

The men and women wearing black and white stripes in sports are either the heroes or villains, as there's no in between when it comes to referees. Being viewed as a hero is less gratifying than being viewed as a villain -- oftentimes, the best officials go completely unnoticed. But this past Sunday's humiliating display from NFL and NBA rulebook enforcers indicates that pro sports have a massive officiating problem, and one that must be solved.

Poor miscalls in the Lakers-Celtics matchup on Saturday, coupled with gaffes in the AFC title game between the Chiefs and Bengals, stole the headlines of what was otherwise an entertaining sports weekend. A late-hit flag thrown on Bengals defender Joseph Ossai -- which set up a game-winning, 45-yard field goal by Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker before time expired -- was justified. But, contextually, it put a stamp on an ugly stretch of officiating, and led many fans and analysts to question the legitimacy of consistency among officials.

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Although Ossai shoved Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes when he was already out of bounds, in the heat of the moment, many football fans would've preferred to see the referees swallow their whistles, and not sway the outcome of such a high-stakes game. During the same play, Chiefs lineman Orlando Brown held Bengals edge-rusher Trey Fredrickson. And, moments earlier, a punt return by Skyy Moore appeared to have been sprung by holding -- which wasn't called. Leniency is important when a game is in crunchtime. An uneven enforcement that seemingly favors one side, however, is far less welcome.

Those who watched the Celtics win tight in overtime against the rival Lakers, in which LeBron James was hit on the arm on a potential go-ahead layup with less than a second left, surely had visions of deja vu. Although Championship Sunday in the NFL is arguably the best sports weekend of the year, many fans had sour tastes in their mouths.

A referee's job revolves around making split-second decisions, which have a high probability for error -- it's tough to give them the benefit of the doubt in the moment. And in an era defined by modern technology and instant replay, it's become a lot more difficult to cut the officials some slack. The sad reality that human judgment has a high probability for error is even harder to accept because of what's at stake. Much like car crashes that occur due to fatigue or lapses, referees make common mistakes. Only their blunders are amplified on massive stages.

"Officials aren't in an enviable position," former Chiefs player and current team analyst Danan Hughes explained to CBS Sports Radio. "You have to determine when to throw the flag, what's worthy of being penalized. And there's often a number of factors involved that make the final decision that much harder."

As a former receiver who played six seasons in the NFL, Hughes has noticed a large level of accountability among players and coaches, in terms of having to publicly defend themselves. Case in point, Ossai had to answer reporters' questions at his locker after Sunday's loss. Hughes believes that the officials' ability to dodge the spotlight contributes to the overall problem.

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"You have 19, 20-year-olds in college who're forced to get up on the podium and answer all types of questions about what went wrong -- both good and bad," Hughes argued. "The officials don't have to answer questions publicly, and a lot of the time, we don't hear anything from the league about discipline or upholding the standards."

So, what's the solution? Not every bad call can be reviewed or given second looks by officiating experts in the league offices. But in these high magnitude situations, there should be some leeway. In Major League Baseball, the ability to challenge balls and strikes might save some of the coulda-woulda-shoulda thoughts. The NFL's execution of challenging pass interference penalties was questionable a few years ago, but reassessing the possibility of throwing red flags to negate the yellow laundry shouldn't be out of the question.

Of course, the elephant in the room is computerizing officiating as a whole to avoid the headache of living with missed calls. But that could potentially take jobs away from humans. It would create issues with the respective unions. It would upset the minority, which think both good and bad calls are part of the game. Letting pre-programed robots perfect the craft is a tantalizing solution. But finding middle ground that cuts down on the bad calls, while maintaining some form of efficiency, is even more crucial.

"[Computerized officials] are more feasible in baseball because it's a stagnant sport. The speed of football and contact between players makes split-second decision making nearly impossible. Officiating hasn't changed," Hughes said.

Society has become far too advanced to simply allow and enable referees to miss blatantly awful calls in the heat of battles. And something must be done to disallow and eradicate the ugly two days of calls fans recently witnessed.

The cycle of discussing poor officiating and debating potential solutions has become tiresome, especially when so few changes are made. Of course, it's much easier said than done to implement solutions. But, standing pat should no longer be an option. Until answers are reached, fans will continue to yell at their TV's, reaching for their own challenge flags from the comfort of home.

Jack Stern is a columnist, anchor, and associate producer for CBS Sports Radio. You can follow him on Twitter @J_Stern97.

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