“They ain’t nothin’ until I call ’em.”

2019 is barely four months old and the sports world has seen two of the most game-changing and talked-about calls ever by enforcers of the rules of the game. In one case, the officials were accused of an error of omission and in the other case of commission. Another way to put it is a non-call in the first instance and a call in the second instance.

On January 20, 2019, the New Orleans Saints played the Los Angeles Rams for the right to go to the Super Bowl. With a minute 45 seconds left to play in regulation, the game was tied but the Saints were driving deep in Rams territory for the likely game-winning field goal or touchdown. On perhaps the most disputed play in NFL history, Rams defensive back Nickell Rohey-Coleman ran face first into Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis near the sidelines. The referees failed to call two blatant infractions: pass interference and helmet-to-helmet contact, and the Saints ended up losing in overtime. The NFL admitted the non-calls were mistakes (and changed the rules) but that was no consolation to Saints fans.

Interestingly, the Saints are owned by a prominent horseracing breeder and owner, Gayle Benson of GMB Racing.

Then, on May 4, 2019, the ostensible winner of the Kentucky Derby, Maximum Security, was disqualified for interfering with several horses during the race, though the winner, Country House, was not impeded. Unlike the Saints-Rams game, the Derby was decided by an officials’ decision rather than by a non-call.

The officials’ ruling in the Kentucky Derby was more debatable than the referees’ non-call in the NFL playoff game. Even Rams fans could see that the referees erred whereas in the Derby opinions are more divided on the stewards’ interpretation and application of the rules.

Two of the most infamous officiating decisions in sports history, coming within months of one another, bring to mind the apocryphal story of the three baseball umpires conversing about how they call the game. The first said, “I call them as I see them.” The second, “I call them as they are.” The third, “They ain’t nothin’ until I call ’em.” 

The third umpire’s candid admission is true of officiating in all athletic events… and rules changes and public outcry will never alter that fact.

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