You Make the Call! Golden Tate, Miroslav Klose, and Officiating Errors

At the start of the semester, I posed the following the question to my Sports Ethics students:

The quarterback fires the ball at you, but the throw is low. You get your hands on it and come up with the ball, but you clearly saw that it touched the ground first. The referee signals a catch and a first down.  What should you do?

With only one exception, the students selected this answer: “You do not say anything and get set for the next play.” The one outlier selected the answer:  “You tell the referee that it was not a catch.”

This is not a surprising response. On Thursday morning on the Mike & Mike ESPN Radio show, they discussed the question of whether Golden Tate, a Seattle Seahawk receiver, should have admitted that his controversial game winning touchdown on Monday Night Football was not really a catch. Mike Golic and Mark Schlereth, both former NFL players, responded without any hesitation or qualification that he should not.

In marked contrast, in the Italian Serie A match on Wednesday between Lazio and Napoli, Miroslav Klose appeared to score a goal for Lazio early in the game. The Napoli side was incensed, claiming that ball came off of Klose’s hand (ironically, Diego “Hand of God” Maradona used to play for Napoli ). Klose admitted to the referee that this was indeed the case and the goal was subsequently disallowed. Karma did not, however, reward Lazio or Klose: they ended up losing 3-0.

Klose, Gate, and Supererogation

Supererogation refers to the category of moral actions that are praiseworthy but not required. Such actions are typically ones we praise individuals for doing but would not criticize if individuals do not. For example, one would likely praise Bob for taking his neighbor Suzie to work when her car broke down. But given that Suzie’s office is thirty minutes in the other direction from Bob’s work, one probably wouldn’t think (separate some special connection or commitment) that Bob is under any sort of obligation to do this for Suzie.

Given the anecdotal responses and reactions to the Klose and Tate events, most people appear to regard an athlete’s reporting an error to the officials as supererogatory. While Klose is widely praised for his act of sportsmanship, the outrage at Tate’s “touchdown” is directed almost entirely at the replacement referees and their incompetence. No one seems to expect Tate to own up to his non-catch. And the media attention given to Klose’s handball correction suggests as well that Klose was going beyond the normal expectation.

I think this conventional view raises some moral concerns. Primarily, my concern is the sense that winning because of a play you know to be prohibited or called incorrectly is not an honorable victory. It is not the way I would want to win were I an athlete and it is not the way I want my team to win as a fan. The joy and value of winning comes from achieving and succeeding according to a prescribed set of rules against opposition that is worthy of the contest. Scoring a goal or preventing a goal with a handball is not succeeding according to the set of rules of soccer, and diminishes the personal value of the win. How much satisfaction can the Seahawk players and fans take in their win over Green Bay? (This story gives an account of how some of the Seahawks felt about the victory after seeing the replays )

What, then, are some of the reasons offered for the supererogatory viewpoint? Two views seem most common.

1)   The “a win is a win” view

2)   The “let the ref make the call” view

The “a win is a win” view regards winning is the highest and most important goal of sport.  The win is all that matters and, short of outright cheating, it doesn’t matter how one wins. If a bad call puts you in a position to win, that is to be regarded as a gift that ought not be challenged.

I don’t regard this view as morally justifiable. Winning is certainly important, but it is not the only valuable thing about sport. Further, how one wins is morally important and cannot be discounted. This view would justify all unsportsmanlike behavior that doesn’t qualify as cheating.

The “let the ref make the call” view fairs much better. It distinguishes the roles of the athlete and the officials. The officials have the job of officiating and making the calls. The athlete ought not, on this view, interfere with the officiating: either by trying to get the official to rule in his or her favor or by owning up to an incorrect call.

There are sports, such as golf, where the athlete has partial responsibility for enforcing the rules, and the conventions regarding this issue are different. In most professional and elite sports, however, the enforcement of the rules is explicitly removed from the athletes’ purview and vested in officials. For an athlete to be put into the position of making the call muddies the waters of adjudicating the rules fairly and equally. The officials and the athletes have their roles to play, and we ought to endeavor for the sake of fairness to keep these roles clear and distinct.

This view goes a long way in justifying the view that an athlete is under no obligation to report to the official incorrect calls. However, it might prove too much. This view suggests that the obligation runs the other way: the athlete ought not to correct the referee. In other words, this view would seem to lead us to say that Klose was in fact wrong to tell the referee about the handball. That goes too far.

So where do we draw the line? My tentative answer is that generally the “let the ref make the call” view is correct, but that in situations where the athlete is clearly aware of an egregious error with a game-changing impact, the integrity of the game and his or her own integrity demand that the athlete speak up. The athlete is not making the call; he is merely providing some data to the official. The official, in accepting this data or not, is still the one to make the call.

Klose clearly knows that his hand makes contact with the ball on a scoring play, so he seems to have an obligation to inform the official of what he knows. Tate, on the other hand, likely is not in a position to know if he has caught the ball. The rules of possession in the NFL are complex, so Tate cannot be sure that the officials have made the wrong call. Thus, Tate has no business telling the official anything regarding the catch. The case of Tate’s offensive pass interference is similar. In the course of a play such as a Hail Mary, it is hard for the athlete to know if his contact with the opponent is sufficient to trigger an interference call.

I am not entirely convinced by this, however. It has an ad hoc feel that rationalizes the status quo. I think we could do with more athletes acting like Klose. And I think we could do with a better account of why.



Filed under Football, NFL, Officiating, soccer

6 responses to “You Make the Call! Golden Tate, Miroslav Klose, and Officiating Errors

  1. linda Klein

    Excellent reasoning!! You helped me to clarify my understanding of who if anyone is responsible and the ethics of it all. You are truly a teacher of ethics!!

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. John Kannarr

    Great analysis, “prof!” I especially appreciated the link to the Michael Silver column, and was heartened by the response by the Seahwk players to viewing the replay.

  3. Joe Danker

    The link is interesting, I recommend checking it out.
    It still looks like an pick to me. . . .

  4. I’m not sure it’s possible to develop a principle of supererogation that would apply effectively across all sports — and indeed, as it applies to rules and officials and the calls they make, I’m not positive we can even apply the term, unless we use it honor of those players who simply keep quiet.

    Some sports–like Golf–encourage self-officiating, but others–like baseball–require separate officials. Further complicating matters are the different approaches sports take to illegal actions. In football and soccer, plays and results–most importantly scoring–may be or reversed or negated by official ruling. In other sports, such as basketball, infractions are an expected and natural part of the flow of the game–to the point that it is a common occurrence to see players inform the officials of their intention to commit a foul and, indeed, to be outraged if the official does not call the foul quickly enough.

    Which raises the last problem with self officiating that you allude to: it is often difficult for a player to objectively assess penalties and fouls during the course of a game. Especially at the highest levels of competition, the athlete is so intently focused on their own performance that they are often utterly unaware of the larger context in which the foul (or not) occurs. In many sports, the players are actively discouraged from interacting with the officials–regardless of their motives.

    In many circumstances, the player’s motive is one of the factors under the officials’ consideration. Officials are charged with determining not only whether or not a foul occurred but whether or not it was intentional, flagrant, excessive or unnecessary and if so, to what degree. In those cases it is especially important that the official ignore any pleading from the players whose opinion on the subject is fraught with bias.

    Even leaving obvious bias aside, in those sports in which officials are charged with regulating both the game–especially the score–as well as the player’s behavior (football, soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey — but not golf, fencing or horse racing) the player’s perspective should often be ignored for the simple fact that the player does not bear the same responsibility that the official does. It’s estimated that well over $100 million in betting wins were at stake in the Monday Night Football call. Sporting officials (both within game and within the sporting league) are charged with maintaining a balanced contest not only for the participants, but for the supporting fans as well. While there is no evidence that Miroslav Klose is anything but a pure sportsman, should that assumption be granted to all athletes in all moments? Given the amounts of money involved in high-profile sporting events and the fact that we know that several major sports (domestically and internationally) have been subject to various gambling scandals–most especially point shaving–it may not be unreasonable to expect a soccer referee to ignore admissions of guilt from players as a matter of course, whether or not he suspects those admissions to be sincere.

    I sympathize with a resistance to this line of argument as ad hoc, but for these major sports, the rules and principles surrounding officiating have evolved and changed over time–as attitudes, player abilities and the visibility of the sport have changed and developed. This line of argument then, isn’t so much ad-hoc as it is rigorously consequentialist: this is what best serves the purpose of the sport. The rules of sport may well be as deontic as the shape of a strikezone or the number of steps between dribbles, but ethics should never be so arbitrary.

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