Across many football platforms, I’ve been noticing a recent rise in conspiracy theories involving the officials. Among them range from a crew being biased in favor or against certain teams, or even some sort of leaguewide conspiracy to tilt the scales in favor of a team for some beautiful Super Bowl story.
I’m not sure how many of these accusations are actually serious, and how many are merely a cathartic release of soreness when things don’t go the way the fan wants. Nonetheless, I’ll join the likes of Mike Florio, Aaron Schatz, and others in pushing back on this narrative, and I’ll do so by going through the steps necessary for these allegations to hold water.
An officiating crew is not a single entity, but a group of seven human beings.
It’s all too easy for fans to refer to an officiating career solely by the referee. An example would be “The Broncos have a terrible record against Bill Vinovich.” In this sentence, “Bill Vinovich”, of course, is shorthand for “Bill Vinovich’s crew.” Most fans understand that in general. But keeping in mind that there are six other officials alongside Vinovich should demonstrate how difficult it would be for an entire crew to have it out in favor or against a given team.
Each official has responsibility on only a fraction of a game. It’s wildly impractical to expect any official to be able to pay attention to the entire field, hence why there are seven of them necessary to officiate a game. If one wanted to prove bias against a single official (something that I cede is more plausible), one needs to look at the calls that that single official is responsible for. Is the umpire calling more holding calls on a team than normal? Is the field judge letting a defensive back repeatedly get away with pass interference? That’s where evidence collection must begin if one is going to make this type of allegation.
But those singular duties also overlap with each other, to indemnify against possible error. It’s seen all the time when one official makes a call, but then is overridden by another one who had a better view. It’s also seen when multiple officials convene, discuss who saw what, and come to a consensus on what the call should be. This drastically limits the amount of damage one official could do in a game. If one official really is regularly leaning for or against a team, it would raise suspicion among the crewmates, and would ultimately be corrected by the final say of the referee. And if the referee is the one that is biased, it wouldn’t take long for the referee’s crewmates to revolt when the inconsistencies become more evident. Furthermore, like all officials there is only a small fraction of action the referee can directly call, hence again there being a limit to damages.
If there really was an officiating conspiracy, it would get exposed quickly.
In order for an effective loading of the dice in favor of or against a team to take place, it would require collusion among all seven officials in a crew to take place. And if the scope of goal was leaguewide, now it’s being multiplied 17 times to 119 officials, plus all the people that would be need to be knowledgeable in order to issue such a directive.
People tend to be terrible at keeping secrets, particularly when the secret is spread among numerous people, and leaks tend to happen when the leaker feels there’s wrongdoing at the base the secret. And there is no paucity of insiders reporting on the NFL. Even if you allege that Ian Rapoport and NFL Media as a whole would have to be on the take to make it work, there’s still Florio, Adam Schefter, Jason La Canfora, Jay Glazer, and a wide array of local reports to leak to. This would be such a blockbuster story that someone would be very eager to get the scoop for their organization.
It’s cromulent to declare that some officials, and some officiating crews are better than others. For my two cents, I think Gene Steratore’s crew tends to officiate a good game, and not so much for Jeff Triplette’s crew. And even the best officials will make a mistake at some point because the job is incredibly difficult. But trying to embiggen these types of errors into something much greater doesn’t go down a very constructive path.