On Admitting Mistakes
This story is bizarre, but the predictable combination of arrogance and an official attitude that correcting errors leads to unacceptable disrespect. Apparently a basketball coach collapsed due to a heart condition during a game. A referee thought he was reacting to a foul called against his team and assessed a technical foul. Even as the coach was removed from the court by medical personnel, however, the referees refused to rescind the call. Thanks to the Sports Law Blog for the tip.
I’ve made some blunders in officiating, and I much prefer it if my partner(s) can help me correct an error than forcing me to defend a mistake to a coach. Nevertheless, I can sympathize with the referees here — not because I think their actions were reasonable. Quite the contrary — the actions were unreasonable and they deserve punishment. But some officiating clinics teach that the general practice is to admit mistakes but not go back on a call that is made. (I have no knowledge about basketball clinics or Conference USA policy on this matter, though.) One instructor at a hockey clinic, for example, told me and the rest of the students of an occasion where he prematurely signaled a delayed tripping penalty . . . and the fouled player never went down, meaning that the penalty did not in fact occur. He called the penalty anyway, and apologized as he was doing it. In his mind there was nothing else he could do. The possibility that he would reverse the call was out of the question.
I do not understand the rationale for that sort of approach. In discussing stare decisis in class, we constantly ask whether it is better for courts to leave decided cases undisturbed or for them to correct past errors. But isn’t the worst approach of all — in judging and in officiating — to admit error and say “too bad”? Most sports, I think, are coming around to the notion that it is better to get the call right than to pretend that the officials always got it right the first time. So we see more conferences in baseball and football, it seems, than there used to be. Perhaps without instant replay sports officials would feel less pressure to confer and get calls right.