I never wanted to write one of the cliché “I was thinking about what to write this week when suddenly *insert story that didn’t really happen here* happened.” However (true story), yesterday, while trying to decide what to write my blog about, I was watching the football game between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots.
Midway through the fourth quarter with the Jets trailing by 10, Tight End Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught a pass and dived into the endzone for a touchdown, bringing the Jets within four. As any fan of the NFL knows, all turnovers or scoring plays are automatically reviewed. Viewers were all thinking the same thing: either the play was a touchdown, or the pass was incomplete. Instead, the referee announced that the Jets had instead fumbled the ball out of the endzone and as a result, the Patriots would take possession. You can take a look of the controversial play below:
With an abundance of camera angles and the proliferation of video replays over social media, referees have been falling under more scrutiny than they ever have before over incorrect decisions and missed calls, things the referees should have noticed but didn’t. Anyone with an internet connection and an opinion can now weigh in with their perspective on a call. While a referee used to only have to deal with the reaction of the crowd on hand and maybe a few comments from an angry coach after the game, discussion on a single call can drag out for days now over the internet.
There are many business and social media implications of a referee’s poor decision. For instance, in 2010 NFL referees erroneously called a penalty on a play which resulted in Steelers fans losing out on $32 million. Prior to the 2015 NFL season, the League announced that they were letting go of several of their officials as a result of their “decision making, the calls they make and calls they should have made but didn’t.” This post will not focus on these types of situations and will instead analyze the social media response to perceived “blown calls.” I will present a general timeline of social media reactions and use the play mentioned above to highlight key points. Not all of these steps are seen in every situation but these are the typical reactions to bad calls throughout major sports.
The “Bad Call” Stages of Grief
Prior to the Call (Establish Expectation)
When a play is under review, like it was in this situation, there is often a small buzz on Twitter during which experts and “experts” give their take on the situation. Twitter essentially establishes their own expectation of what the official review will yield. A majority of the time, the opinion of the (Twitter) crowd matches the opinion of the officials when they make their final decision and discussion on the call virtually stops. But when the two do not agree, Twitter proceeds to the next step.
During this stage, the teams involved start to show up in “Trending” on Twitter. First, people who are watching the game go online to express their outrage. Various experts will also let their disagreement be known. Others who weren’t watching the game start to notice references pop up on their Twitter feed and they too weigh in. Eventually, the sports networks will tweet out a video in which their experts and commentators breakdown the film to explain why the officials are wrong.
Defense of the Call
Soon, defenders of the officials will start flocking to Twitter. At first, they tend to be replying to their friends to disagree with their outrage. Eventually, they will progress to making their own tweets supported by their own analysis of the play. The discussion between the disagree-ers and the defenders will continue for about a day depending on the importance of the game or match, leading the league to address their concerns with the decision.
Official Apology or Defense
Approximately one day after the event in question, the league will do one of two things: apologize or dig in. In this situation, the NFL decided to support their original ruling. In other cases, such as the MLB-related incident below, the league will apologize for making a bad decision. However, it is unlikely that the league will actually overturn the result of a game as it is impossible to know what would have happened had the opposite call been made.
After an official statement is made, Twitter resumes their arguing. This argument period is often much shorter than the original period. Typically, if the sports league apologizes for the official’s decision, Twitter will respond gratefully as their collective analysis was reinforced. If the league does not apologize, Twitter users usually progress from criticizing the officials or replay process to criticizing the league itself. In this case, many online used this response to explain why the league itself was declining in popularity.
Life Goes On
Eventually, Twitter calms down. Usually, this happens only a few days after the league makes their statement. Throughout the rest of the season, the bad call may resurface, such as if the team misses the playoffs by one game or if the two teams that were playing at the time of the incident are playing again. Whether Twitter users realize that they cannot get the outcome of the game changed or their attention shifts to the next game, people eventually forget about the call.
So, if the game outcome is never changed, what is the point of airing out your thoughts on Twitter? This does two major things. First, it lets the league know that there is a problem. Professional sports leagues exist to make money and if the viewers are disappointed with the product, they will stop making money. Although Tweeting your thoughts on a play does not have an immediate impact on the league play review system, the league will consider fan opinions when making changes in the future. Second, it lets you get involved with the game. Twitter gives you a platform to share your thoughts, the same platform that sports networks and league experts use. By sharing your thoughts, you get to be part of a community. In the past, if their was a bad call you knew about, you could only discuss it with your friends. Now, you can discuss it with the entire world, bringing the social aspect of sports to a whole new level.