Week In Sports Reviewed

Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis discusses the recent spate of bad officiating in the Major League Baseball Playoffs. Are the bad calls the result of better, faster players or worse umpires? Will instant replay become more of a factor in professional sports?

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It has not been a good month for professional sports officials. Major League Baseball umpires have faced passionate criticism from fans for several glaring mistakes during the playoffs. In college football, some officials were suspended after bad calls in a game last weekend. And the NBA locked out its already maligned referees in a contract dispute. Well, this sounds like a good starting point for our regular Friday discussion with sports commentator Stefan Fatsis.

So hello, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Michele.

NORRIS: First off, are we seeing a trend here or perceptible decline in sports officiating?

FATSIS: I doubt it. When people criticize referees, it's usually just fan and media overreaction. And yes, look, some of the calls we've seen lately have been bad, especially that incredible play the other night where the Los Angeles Angels catcher clearly tagged two Yankees standing off of third base, but only one was called out.

But you have to understand, training, experience, performance review, they are more extensive than ever in sports. If there's an issue, I think it's how the games themselves have changed and how technology has changed and how sports can respond to those changes to try to make officiating even better than it generally is.

NORRIS: Well, speaking of change, one thing that's definitely different in baseball and football particularly, athletes just seem to keep getting stronger and faster. Is it that the refs just can't keep up?

FATSIS: You know, I think that's a conversation that's worth having. These sports are played at remarkable speeds, and refs rely on human eyesight, reaction time, which aren't perfect to begin with. Officials in Major League Baseball, basketball, football, they're typically in their 40s and 50s. Some are in their 60s. The NBA, until recently, had a ref in his early 70s.

Now, these guys are trying to - and I say guys because they mostly are - these guys are trying to govern sports played by people at least 20 or 30 years younger. Experience does matter, how you handle players, coaches, situations. The question is whether someone in his 50s or 60s has the physical ability to keep up.

NORRIS: You know, the refs take a lot of pride in what they do. This has to be a very touchy subject for them.

FATSIS: Yeah, and it was an issue in the NBA's negotiations for a new labor contract with its referees, who by the way are expected to be back on the court for the start of the regular season on Tuesday.

Referees' unions have argued that leagues are looking for ways to fire older refs, who of course make more money than younger refs, on the grounds that they aren't as good anymore. This is dangerous territory.

In the early 1990s, the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the NFL had illegally demoted a referee when he hit age 65 and sued the league on the ref's behalf. That case wound up settling out of court.

NORRIS: But it sounds like this is not just about age and experience.

FATSIS: No, it's not. It's about the games. It's about the interpretation of the rules. Basketball is the best example here. A few years ago, the NBA instituted rules changes that were designed to speed up play and unclog defenses by discouraging contact between players. That sometimes led refs to calling fouls on every little bump, which slows down play, denies athletes the chance to show their ability to just play the game, which was the point of the rules changes in the first place.

So more rules can lead to this subconscious reaction on a ref's part to enforce more tightly. That can lead to more calls, and thanks to the help of multiple camera angles and replays, more obviously wrong calls.

NORRIS: And replays, that seems to be a key word. If sports used more of them, would the officiating improve?

FATSIS: No, the question is whether the games would take longer. But whether you oppose or support replays, the reality is that it's here, and it's going to keep increasing. The NFL has its extensive system. The NBA is adding a couple of new situations this year where replays can be used.

Now, baseball's been much slower to find uses for instant replay, right now only to determine whether home runs actually leave the field. It's on the defensive. It didn't address the replay issue after this spate of bad calls. It did say it would assign only umpires for the World Series who had called the World Series before, can duck it for now, but I think instant replay is coming, even in baseball, in some limited form, and I think it's going to come pretty soon.

NORRIS: Thanks, Stefan. Have a great weekend.

FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: That's Stefan Fatsis. He talks to us on Fridays about sports and the business of sports.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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