Over the past decade, coaches and players in professional sports have criticized referees more openly and aggressively, with many star players setting the bad example. However, this is likely not because officiating has gotten worse in that time span.
In fact, the reality is that officiating is probably better and more accurate now than at any other time in history. Referees have more technology at their disposal, and most leagues conduct significant oversight of referees’ decisions, including quantitative scoring of their performances.
Coaches and players aren’t the only ones directing outrage at officials. Because millions of people can scrutinize a clip of a sports game on social media—often instantaneously, with angles not even shown on television broadcasts—spectators also complain extensively about officiating. I know from firsthand experience that this isn’t just true for pro sports. Coaches and parents in many youth sports games also are highly critical of referees, even those who are barely paid or are volunteering their time.
So, it isn’t a shock that an officiating controversy brewed up during the biggest American sporting event of the year: last Sunday’s Super Bowl.
In the incredible showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, Eagles cornerback James Bradberry was penalized for defensive holding on a critical third down play with less than two minutes remaining. Though it initially appeared that Philadelphia successfully stopped the Chiefs and would have a chance to get the ball back and drive to win the game, the penalty gave the Chiefs a new set of downs. Kansas City subsequently ran out the clock, kicked a field goal with eight seconds left, and won the game.
There was enormous outrage at the penalty call, especially because it came at such a pivotal moment in a close game. While it’s entirely possible the Eagles would have lost anyway, the penalty effectively sealed their fate.
Even as millions of people voiced their dissatisfaction at the call—including Greg Olsen, a former NFL player who was calling the game for FOX—one person stunned me by not complaining: James Bradberry, the man who committed the penalty.
After the game, when asked about it, Bradberry simply said, “It was a holding…I tugged his jersey. I was hoping they would let it slide.”
Bradberry could’ve easily hid behind the crowd of people furious about the penalty call, but instead he owned his actions and didn’t place blame externally. I loved that decision and gained a ton of respect for him.
The rush to blame referees is tied to a greater trend: today, people are too quick to blame others for failure while being far quicker to claim credit for success. While blaming failures on external circumstances may make us feel better in the moment, it hurts us in the long term.
Individuals or teams that blame their external circumstances repeat their mistakes because they never identify and fix their weaknesses or approach. In contrast, people and teams who respond to failure by focusing on their own actions learn to make the changes and adjustments necessary to get a better outcome next time.
Even in that emotional moment, Bradberry knew that complaining about the officiating would not change the outcome. Rather than spending the offseason stewing over the penalty and feeling cheated out of a championship, I bet Bradberry spends the next six months working hard on his game so he can help his team return to the Super Bowl and come away with a win.
As I write in my upcoming book, Elevate Your Team, obsessing over things we don’t control, either as individuals or organizations, is a hallmark of low emotional capacity. Great teams, coaches and players focus on what they do control and respond to adversity and failure by examining what they can do better in the future. They always look inward, not outward.
While Bradberry’s team came up short in the Super Bowl, I hope kids, coaches, parents, professional athletes and leaders will follow his example.
Quote of The Week
“Accountability breeds response-ability.”