What Happens When the Ref Gets it Wrong?

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.

Initial Reaction

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.

Secondary Reaction

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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.


  1. whitmcdonald2 · ·

    Bob, thanks for the post! I also watched the game on Sunday and it was very heated as both Jets and Pats fans were in the room. So, I can’t imagine what twitter looked like. These social media platforms are there for us to express ourselves so naturally topics like this get heated. But I really liked your breakdown of stages of “grief” on twitter. Funny, but also true. Although social media may give the NFL more problems in terms of pleasing the crowds, I do think all of the clips, photos, commentary, rules, etc. help educate fans all over the country in terms of making the right decision. I feel like fans who are at the game or just watching reviews on the TV might not have all of the information in order to make the right call due to lack of time, the game continuing, etc.. I think social media helps fans go beyond just siding with the call that benefits their own team in order to make the right call. Thanks!

  2. Your blog post is a very accurate outline of the phases on Twitter that occur after a controversial call is made by a referee. There is a story about this occurring in Golf with Tiger Woods. It was under review for 20 hours after a viewer called in and reported a violation he saw on his screen at home. As a result of the back and forth debating the rules of viewers/golf, the USGA changed the time frame a viewer is allowed to call in to report a violation/penalty. It’s really interesting to see how social media/digital world has altered the scoring and refereeing of all sports.

  3. This post is really clever! When I first read the title of your blog post I thought it was going to be just another rant on how play review was ruining football and sports in general but I really enjoyed this different perspective. I am not an avid twitter user (except for in this class) so I really enjoyed the step by step run through of what happens on twitter when there is a bad call–I didn’t realize that people still talk about it days later or that the league eventually even steps in and makes a statement.

  4. juliasmacdonald · ·

    Hi, Bob! I am a big fan of your sport-related posts. I never really thought about how game time decisions can impact the overall business of a company like the NFL. I think that some of this discussion is normal and even good for the NFL- it shows that their consumers are engaged and care enough to speak out about their opinions. However, it definitely is a fine line between having discussion and alienating consumers.

    Also, a side note relating to our discussion in class: when I tried to play the video it wouldn’t let me, saying “This video contains content from the NFL, who has blocked it from display on this website or application.” I was then redirected to YouTube. It looks like the NFL has claimed the content in your post!

  5. s_courtney18 · ·

    In a previous life of mine on a separate Twitter account not used for class, I used to go through similar stages of grief–mostly related to back when the SF 49ers were good and throughout my time as a Golden State Warriors fan. Instead of just taking out anger and frustration in person with other people you are watching a game with, many people flock online to discuss and rant with people who have similar opinions. Although complaining on a social platform like Twitter doesn’t do much, it at leasts allows fans to feel like other people feel the same way as them.

  6. Hilary_Gould · ·

    I love that you showed the timeline of what was happening on Twitter during replay reviews. I was actually listening to this on the radio in the car when they overturned it. It was interesting because I never saw the play, so I was solely relying on the announcers to make my own judgement of what happened. My sports analytics class talked about this recently and how “swallowing the whistle” is harder now because of video replay and the ability to challenge calls. It is interesting because I think as fans our expectations of officials to get it right has gone up in part because of better cameras/technology, but also because we know that they can challenge the call and there will be a million camera angles reviewed in slow mo. It’s really interesting how technology plays a part in making these calls, but then also in fans following along and chiming in their own opinion.

  7. Haha. Great post! Still can’t believe the call (and I’m a Patriots fan)

  8. taylorvanhare · ·

    Bob! Loved this post – I think I really underestimated the amount of backlash that can happen after a controversial call is made. I really think it’s hard for referees to win these days, as they are constantly challenged. I really also liked @hilarygould point about “swallowing the whistle”, as a referee it’s hard to admit a wrong call – but when the technology behind it expresses a different result you can’t ignore it. This is a HUGE stretch but I wonder if one day some sort of AI machine will have a part in the refereeing of sports – like Sam Harris’s TED talk – they will be smarter and more competent then us so inevitably they will make better calls? Just a thought!

  9. I think when sports were first developed, there was ability to understand the intent or heart of any rule. Now because of technology and Monday Morning Quarterbacking we have forced sport’s leagues into developing rules that are black and white with no middle ground.

    These black and white rules protect the refs from making the wrong call, because they are making the call with no misinterpretation of the rules and no misunderstanding of the intent. I believe that this won’t change because sometimes you will get the benefit of the rule, while others you will not.

    There was also to holding calls on the defensive line that extended the drive. I am not sure that this led to points, but who knows how the game would have changed if the penalties would have been called. I do not like how intense replays have become, but I bet when you average it all out you will benefit by as many calls as you would have been screwed by.

  10. britt_hopkins4 · ·

    Bob, this is an awesome post. I, like @hollywarendorf, am not a huge Twitter user, but I think it’s amazing how the Twitter users can see a call better than a professional ref. Sometimes I think I could be a better ref than them. It’s so interesting how you brought social media into play in this situation, and I love how you broke it down step by step, with a comical aspect. You are 100% correct in all of your assumptions. I feel like your stages of grief in terms of Twitter can relate to a lot of other instances also. I feel like for the most part, it would just be better to admit the mistake in the call and move on from there. If not, I feel like there will always be a negative connotation around that ref.

  11. I loved this post Bob. I was also watching the game and I couldn’t believe the decision. But lets talk technology and not sports. I was following some twitter accounts regarding this and its great to have seen all kinds of comments, from patriots fans, obviously jets fans and NFL executives and ESPN commentators. Its a great way to follow sports, you just need to find the adequate accounts to follow. There are many trolls or bots (some one tweeted this week that 15% of Twitter users are bots). O the other hand, there are great accounts to follow and trust. I see this as an opportunity in Twitter. Lastly, I can;t imagine was what going through NFL NY studio when deciding this. At the end the FINAL decision comes from NY not from the referee on the field. After having the technology to review, this has to be a bad call of a human being. And for me that is worse.

%d bloggers like this: