10 Worst Calls in Sports History

Meldrick Taylor (L) is hit with a punch from Julio Cesar Chavez during a fight at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas in 1990. The fight was called for Chavez with just two seconds remaining. See other sports pictures. The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

"What? No! Are you kidding? Come on, ref!" Such are the tortured screams of a true sports fan. Is there anything more gut-punchingly painful than watching your team go down on a bad call? It's one thing to lose fair and square to a better opponent, but another thing entirely to get robbed by a half-blind, hometeam-loving, officially awful official.

OK, fine. Referees and umpires are human beings who make human mistakes. That's understandable. But why do they always have to make their human mistakes against our team?

Before you think that the world is against you, check out these 10 egregious, atrocious, heinous (wait, let me get out the thesaurus), flagrantly ridiculous blown calls. If you still feel victimized, volunteer for a season as a Little League umpire. Then you'll know what real pain is.

10
Kid Gives Yankees a Home Run
Twelve-year-old Yankees fan Jeffrey Maier answers a reporter's qustion after catching a fly ball over outfielder Tony Tarasco of the Baltimore Orioles; it was ruled a home run in a controversial decision. Getty Images

It was a crisp October night in 1996 when 12-year-old Yankees fan Jeffrey Maier attended his very first playoff game at Yankee Stadium. Like any optimistic Little Leaguer, he made sure to bring his glove [source: Maier].

It was game one of the Yankees' best-of-seven American League Champion Series against the Baltimore Orioles, and none other than rookie sensation Derek Jeter — Maier's hero — was at the plate. Jeter swung hard at the first pitch, sending it soaring toward the right field wall.

Remembering the moment 18 years later, Maier says that he scrambled to the wall and stuck his glove out among a gaggle of other fans. The next thing he knew, the ball was rolling around at his feet, the crowd was roaring, and he lost the souvenir ball in the scrum. Upset over his missed opportunity, Maier was unaware of the explosive controversy playing out on the field.

Maier, as the instant replays clearly showed, had deflected Jeter's home run ball over the wall, essentially snatching it away from the waiting glove of Orioles' right fielder Tony Tarasco. Maier's fan interference should have waved off the homer, but umpire Rich Garcia ignored the in-your-face "explanations" of Tarasco, his teammates, and livid Orioles manager Davey Johnson, and stuck with one of the worst calls in Major League history.

Maier instantly became the most famous 12-year-old in America, beloved by Yankees fans and hated by just about everyone else. For diehard Orioles fans, his infamy never faded. A decade later, while playing college baseball, some serious grudge-holders pelted Maier with rocks [source: Maier].

9
Heads — No Wait — Tails!
Referee Phil Luckett signals a score during a game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2000. Back in 1998, he heard the Pittsburgh Steelers co-captain call "heads" on a pre-game coin toss. Everyone else heard "tails." Andy Lyons/Allsport/Getty Imges

Sometimes the simplest calls are the easiest to blow. Actually, that's not true at all, unless you are an NFL referee named Phil Luckett. While officiating a coin toss -- a coin toss! -- before overtime in a 1998 Thanksgiving game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions, Luckett got his proverbial head stuck in his tail.

When Luckett tossed the ceremonial coin in the air, Steelers co-captain and star running back Jerome Bettis clearly called "tails!" You could even hear it over the stadium PA system. But Luckett chimed out, "Heads is the call. He said 'heads.'" The coin, of course, landed on tails, giving Detroit the first crack at scoring.

Bettis couldn't believe what was happening; even the TV announcers were incredulous. "He said tails! He said tails! That is unbelievable. This is an embarrassment for the National Football League."

The Steelers never got the ball back, losing to a Lions' field goal in the first possession of overtime. After the game, Luckett claimed that Bettis had called "heads-tails," and that he stuck with the first thing he heard [source: Sports Illustrated]. Steelers' fans could be forgiven for responding, "You, sir, are the best-worst referee in NFL history."

8
Two Seconds From Championship
Meldrick Taylor (R) looked so dazed and bloody in the 12th round that the referee ended the fight early, which meant a win for opponent Julio Cesar Chavez. Unfortunately just two seconds remained and Taylor had been ahead on points. The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

This 1990 fight was the light welterweight championship bout between the undefeated Mexican titleholder Julio Cesar Chavez and the young American Olympic gold medalist Meldrick Taylor. Both men hammered each other mercilessly for 11 rounds, with Taylor landing more clean punches but absorbing punishing blows to the head and kidneys from Chavez [source: Mulvaney].

In the 12th and final round, the scorecards had Taylor ahead on points, but Chavez landed a series of jabs that dropped Taylor to his knees, and then, stumbling for the ropes, onto his back. Veteran referee Richard Steele counted to eight before Taylor regained his footing, still bleeding heavily from an open cut over his eye.

Steele asked Taylor if he was OK, but Taylor didn't answer, looking instead to his trainer [source: Mulvaney]. Steele went with his gut and called the fight immediately. But would he have chosen differently if he'd known that there were only two seconds on the clock?

Two seconds until the end of the fight.

Boxing fans were outraged, arguing that Chavez couldn't have inflicted any further damage in those final two seconds. Taylor, they screamed, was robbed. Steele — who was booed at every remaining fight he officiated — might have had good reason to make the bad call. Taylor was hospitalized after the fight with broken orbital bones around his left eye, serious blood loss and internal bleeding around his kidneys [source: Mulvaney].

7
Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God'
Argentinian forward Diego Maradona (R) readies to cross the ball under pressure from English defender Gary Stevens during the World Cup quarterfinal. This 1986 match is well-remembered for Maradona's 'hand of God' comment. STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

In the 1986 World Cup semifinal between Argentina and England, England was favored, but the eyes of the world were on Argentina's flashy midfielder Diego Maradona, widely considered the best footballer — "soccer player" in the U.S. — to ever play the game.

If the contest on the field wasn't intense enough, the semifinal match reopened fresh wounds from the controversial Falklands War of 1982. During that short-lived conflagration, an overpowering British army repelled Argentinean troops from a disputed island chain, costing hundreds of lives on both sides [source: BBC].

Minutes into the second half, with the score tied at 0-0, an English defender misplayed a ball, volleying it high toward his own goalkeeper. Maradona, in a streak of speed leapt skyward to head the ball over the 6-foot-1 goalie Peter Shilton, scoring Argentina's first goal — technically it was a ¡gooooooallllll! — sending Azteca Stadium into pandemonium.

On the field, however, Shilton and the rest of the English team were grabbing their arms, signaling that the crafty Maradona had punched the ball into the net with his fist, not his mop-topped head. The officials stuck with their original call, even as viewers at home watched the replay where Maradona clearly volleyball-ed his way to a goal.

After the game, a smirking Maradona — who also scored Argentina's second goal to win 2-1 — told the press that his first goal was scored "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the Hand of God" [source: Barragan].

6
Ref Confuses Helmet for Football
New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde (green jersey) lies with his head on the goal line after being tackled by the Seattle Seahawks in 1998. The ref mistook his helmet for a ball and called a touchdown, giving victory to the undeserving Jets. MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images

Journeyman quarterback Vinny Testaverde played 21 seasons in the NFL for seven different clubs, but his best years were spent with the New York Jets. In 1998, he set the Jets franchise record for most passing touchdowns in a single season at 29. By contrast, he scored a single rushing touchdown all season. But that lone touchdown, and the lousy call that accompanied it, may have singlehandedly brought instant replay back to the NFL.

The NFL experimented with instant replay from 1986 to 1991, but dropped it after complaints that it slowed down the pace of the game [source: Anderson]. Then came the 1998 game between Testaverde's Jets and the Seattle Seahawks. In the final seconds of the game, the Jets were down by five points with fourth and goal from the five yard line. Instead of passing, Testaverde attempted a quarterback sneak, but was pulled down a foot shy of the end zone.

But what's this? The referee threw his arms into the air signaling a touchdown, giving the game to the exuberant Jets.

Seattle coach Dennis Erickson was decidedly less exuberant. When the league's supervisor of officials called Erickson later to explain, he admitted that the field referee saw Testaverde's helmet cross the goal line and mistook it for the ball [source: Myers]. Easy mistake, since a football helmet is shiny and round and a football is leathery and, well, football-shaped.

Following the Testaverde "incident," the league voted overwhelmingly to bring back instant replay for the 1999 season.

5
The Case of the 'Phantom Tag'
Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch (L) drops the ball as he takes the throw in the top of the 10th inning from Derek Jeter; yet, the umpire ruled that Red Sox second baseman Jose Offerman was out. Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Red Sox fans have a particular reputation for taunting players from the opposing team. During game four of the 1999 American League Championship Series, their victim was Chuck Knoblauch, the Yankees' loose-armed second baseman.

As Knoblauch warmed up between innings, he threw a ball 20 feet (6 meters) to the left of his first baseman that ricocheted off of the photographer's booth. Red Sox fans howled, but it was Knoblauch who would have the last laugh.

In the eighth inning, the Yankees were up 3-2, but the Red Sox had a runner on first and only one out. Red Sox second baseman John Valentin chopped a grounder to Knoblauch, who bobbled the ball before reaching out to tag the passing Red Sox runner Jose Offerman. Offerman evaded the tag, and Knoblauch tossed a looping throw to first for the second out of the inning.

Or was it the third? The second base umpire called Offerman out, even though Knoblauch missed the tag by a yard! I'll let The New York Times describe the fan reaction:

"When the replay was shown on a television about 50 feet [15 meters] from the Red Sox clubhouse, the angry and ornery fans groaned as if they had just witnessed a car accident."

The Red Sox lost the game and eventually the series, extending the "Curse of the Bambino" for another long year.

4
The Infamous 'Skate in the Crease'
The Dallas Stars pose for a team photo with the Stanely Cup trophy as they celebrate the win over the Buffalo Sabres in 1999. Elsa Hasch /Allsport/Getty Images

The events of the night of June 19, 1999, continue to torture fans of the Buffalo Sabres hockey franchise, even 15 years later. In triple overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, Brett Hull of the opposing Dallas Stars grabbed his own rebound and scored the winning goal of the series. For the Sabres and their fans, though, the game was far from over.

The Sabres claimed that Hull's left skate was inside the crease — the area directly in front of the goal — before the puck, which was against NHL rules at the time. The officials contended that Hull was still in possession of the puck (even though his first shot ricocheted off the goalkeeper's pad) and was therefore allowed to be in the crease.

In protest, the Sabres players refused to change out of their uniforms for 20 minutes, hoping the call would be reversed and play would resume [source: Webley]. Meanwhile, angry Sabres fans began chanting "No goal!" and have kept it up for a decade and a half.

Hull, for his part, has a long memory, too. The long-retired hockey legend recently changed his Twitter profile pic to a shot of himself holding a miniature Stanley Cup and wearing a T-shirt reading, "Brett Hull is a Cheater." His accompanying Tweet: "New pic for all my friends in buffalo xoxo" [source: Wyshynsky].

3
Three Extra Seconds for Soviet Basketball Team
The U.S. team celebrates, mistakingly thinking they've won over the Soviet Union in the Olympic basketball final of 1972. After the game clock was reset, the Soviets won. The U.S. refused the silver which still sits in a vault in Switzerland. AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Coming into the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany, the U.S. men's basketball team had an impressive 62-0 record, the longest winning streak in Olympic history. But not everyone was a fan of the dominant Americans. British-Italian Renato William Jones, president of the International Federation of Amateur Basketball (known as FIBA), worried that another American gold medal would effectively seal basketball's fate as a U.S.-only sport [source: Golden].

Meanwhile, the Soviets had assembled a veteran basketball squad for the Munich games with a lot more international experience than the U.S. side. They also dispatched their basketball emissary with a case of vodka and some fine cigars to woo Jones at a pre-Olympic tournament in Munich [sources: Amdur, Golden]. The wooing must have worked.

In the gold-medal match between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the Americans sunk two free throws to lead by two points with only one second on the game clock. One second was hardly enough time for the Soviets to inbound the ball, let along get off a shot.

But the Soviets complained that their time out called before the last free throw had been ignored. Out of the crowd leapt Jones, who commanded the officials to add three seconds to the clock. Inexplicably, they complied, but things got worse. The Soviet pass went astray and the U.S. declared victory. Not so fast: Jones said play had begun prematurely so the clock needed to be reset for another three seconds, giving the Soviet team just enough time to make the winning basket and hand the Americans their first Olympic loss [source: Golden].

Not surprisingly, members of the U.S. team refused to accept their silver medal.

2
Fifth and Goal
Wide receiver Mike Pritchard of the University of Colorado at Boulder carries the ball against the University of Tennessee in 1990; in another game that year, Colorado managed a rare fifth down which the referees didn't notice. Bernstein Associates/Getty Image

Nothing gets people fired up quite like a game-ending blown call. That's exactly what happened in 1990 when a motley squad of college football referees accidentally gave Colorado five downs to score a game-winning (and soul-crushing) touchdown in front of thousands of livid Missouri fans.

The circumstances of the infamous "fifth and goal" moment are too complicated to describe here. For the full story, read this in-depth ESPN article. To sum up, the refs had never worked together before, Colorado confused everyone by spiking the ball on second down (the college rules had been recently amended to allow it), and the guy holding the downs marker was distracted by a man dying of a heart attack a few rows behind him [source: Friend].

A series of confusing plays later — including yet another intentional spike — it became clear to the screaming wall of Missouri fans that Colorado was about to attempt a fifth down. The refs remained oblivious. Colorado squeaked in a quarterback sneak and rushed off the field before the surging crowd of incensed Missouri fans could eat them alive.

In a bizarre twist, the head referee called both teams back onto the field to attempt an extra point. At this point, the Colorado staff had realized they scored on a rare fifth down, but the refs were still unconvinced. Fearing for their players' safety, Colorado fielded only 11 players, who were escorted off the field by police.

1
Perfect Screwup
Major League umpire Jim Joyce receives the lineup card from Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga before the start of a game against the Cleveland Indians; earlier, Joyce apologized to Galarraga for the bad call which cost him a perfect game. Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

There's no doubt that veteran Major League Baseball umpire Jim Joyce is a man of character and conviction. And nowhere was that better on display than June 2, 2010, in Detroit, when Joyce stuck by his horrendous call that ruined a perfect game for Tigers' pitcher Armando Galarraga.

A perfect game in baseball is when no player from the opposing team gets on base. No hits. No walks. No errors. Just 27 straight outs. Only 20 players had pitched a perfect game in MLB history before Galarraga took the mound against the Cleveland Indians. Galarraga retired 26 batters before facing down Indians' shortstop Jason Donald for the final out of an astounding pitching performance [source: Kepner].

Donald hit a routine grounder 40 feet (12 meters) to the left of first base, which was grabbed by the Detroit first baseman. Galarraga, the pitcher, ran to cover first. The throw looked to arrive a split second before the runner, but first base umpire Jim Joyce defiantly signaled "Safe!"

The Detroit players and managers roared at Joyce, but he held his ground. (Instant replay is only used in MLB playoff games.) After the game, the reality sunk in. "I just cost that kid a perfect game," Joyce told reporters.

The following night in Detroit, Joyce choked back tears as he took the field with the officiating crew and accepted the Detroit lineup card from a good-natured Armando Galarraga.

Galarraga told the press that Joyce apologized to him after the game; and Galarraga added with a smile, "Nobody's perfect" [source: Kepner].

The two men went on to write a book together under that title.

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Author's Note: 10 Worst Calls in Sports History

We are all instant replay brats. From the comfort of our couches, we wield the godlike power of super slow-motion, watching millisecond by millisecond in high definition as the base runner's toe hits the bag or the defender's pinky graces his opponent's elbow in the act of shooting. "Are you blind, ref?"

Hopefully not, but he certainly doesn't have superpowers, including the ability to effectively stop time. Have you ever sat courtside at a basketball game or close to the action at a football game? These athletes move at incredible speeds. Add in the deafening roar of the crowd and the pressure of the job, and it's amazing that the refs don't blow every call. So next time you're tempted to hurl an insult at the ref, put yourself in their shoes. Then quickly take them off, because someone might throw a beer can at you.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Amdur, Neil. "The Three Seconds That Never Seem to Run Out." The New York Times. July 28, 2012 (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/sports/olympics/three-seconds-of-the-munich-olympics-that-never-seem-to-run-out.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
  • Anderson, Dave. "Sports of the Time; Just Thank Testaverde for Replay." The New York Times. March 18, 1999 (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/18/sports/sports-of-the-times-just-thank-testaverde-for-replay.html
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