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Original Issue

OFFICIALLY AWFUL

A WEEKEND FULL OF QUESTIONABLE CALLS PUT THE SPOTLIGHT ON THE ZEBRAS. BLOWN CALLS ARE NOTHING NEW—BUT EXPECTATIONS HAVE CHANGED

TOM BRADY'S first Super Bowl was so long ago that hardly anyone saw it in high-definition. It was 2002. In the previous year only one million HDTV sets had been sold, compared to 30 million analog sets. Most Americans had no idea just how handsome Brady is. We also did not realize just how blind referees are.

We see more clearly now, and man, does that make us angry. We see every shoelace that nicks an out-of-bounds blade of grass, every cloud of dust kicked up by a baseball hit along the foul line, every finger that nips an NBA shooter's elbow. It has turned sports fans into an unforgiving mob that cannot overlook a single missed call, timekeeping error or type-o.

The old refereeing maxim—start out perfect and improve from there—is not just a funny line anymore. Most Americans see flawless officiating as a Constitutional right, as sacred as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right to roll through a stop sign if you're pretty sure nobody is coming from the other directions.

This week's victims are the Saints, who were undeniably hosed by a missed pass-interference call against the Rams in the NFC title game (page 34). It has been called the worst officiating mistake in NFL history, but the 1978 Dallas Cowboys would tell you it wasn't even the worst pass-interference call ever; Dallas lost the Super Bowl to the Steelers after a phantom PI. Blown calls have been part of sports forever. But for decades officials had a clearer view than we did. Now we usually have a better view. We expect perfection.

We also have outlets for our anger. That 2002 Super Bowl was so long ago that if you wanted to scream at a stranger, you had to knock on his front door. Trust me, kids: It was exhausting. Now we have Twitter, which gives blue check marks to some users and pitchforks and torches to millions more. It is easier than ever to find a mob to join. Socrates spent less time developing his famous method than we have spent arguing the catch rule.

Earlier this season, in a showdown between the Warriors and the Rockets, NBA officials missed Kevin Durant's stepping out-of-bounds while saving an errant ball. The Rockets were understandably incensed, but any high ground they might have taken was undercut by that fact that a few weeks earlier James Harden got away with a five-step travel, which was a departure from his customary four-step travel. (Harden is like Southwest Airlines: His itineraries always include an unnecessary step.) We assume that keeping track of 20 extremely athletic feet and arms is easy. It's not.

NHL fans proudly say theirs is the fastest team sport, then gripe when refs can't follow it. If you haven't gotten angry about a missed offside or a botched goalie interference call, are you even a hockey fan?

People joyfully played baseball for more than a hundred years without knowing that they briefly bounce off a base when they slide into it. Now superslow, superzoomed replays frequently send apparently safe base runners back to the dugout. Ball-tracking technology tells us with 100% confidence (if not 100% accuracy) whether a curveball passed through the strike zone. Unless we suspend an actual rectangle over the plate, how can umpires see what we do at home?

Replay reviews fix mistakes, but not all of them. In the AFC title game (page 28), the Patriots' Julian Edelman had what appeared to be a muffed punt overturned after 73 replays showed that the ball somehow avoided his hands and upper arm because Bill Belichick practices witchcraft. But that awful noncall that hurt the Saints was not reviewable. Neither was a questionable roughing-the-passer call against the Chiefs (above). There are sound reasons for that, but nobody wants to hear them.

A year ago the Saints lost a playoff game when safety Marcus Williams made an unnecessarily aggressive attempt to break up a desperation pass, whiffed and gave up a miracle touchdown to the Vikings. On some level we understood that: Williams is a player, and players make mistakes. But if you spend a lifetime cheering for your guys or a month's rent betting on them, you can't handle a ref's botching a play like Williams did.

We may look back on this age of refereeing the way we now look back at dial-up Internet: as a time when technology was just advanced enough to drive us insane. Eventually we should have the ability to tell exactly where every player and the ball were at every moment of a game, effectively eliminating human officiating errors.

In the meantime, take a moment to feel for today's zebras, who are probably better at their jobs than their predecessors but usually look worse. Refereeing has its perks. You get free admission to the games and, if necessary, a police escort out of them. But you also must live up to an impossible standard. Being an American referee is like being stuck in a marriage with 100 million angry spouses and no divorce attorney in sight. We all have flaws. But theirs really tick us off.

WE MAY LOOK BACK ON THIS AGE OF REFEREEING THE WAY WE NOW LOOK BACK AT DIAL-UP INTERNET: AS A TIME WHEN TECHNOLOGY WAS JUST ADVANCED ENOUGH TO DRIVE US INSANE.

NEWSMAKERS

P. 16

A LIFE REMEMBERED

P. 17

GAMEPLAN

P. 18

EATS

P. 20

EDGE

P. 24

FACES IN THE CROWD

P. 26