Officiating in any sport is a difficult assignment. Mistakes are going to be made each week, but some errors are bigger than others.
There have been numerous bad calls in sports history, but we rounded up 16 of the worst in recent memory, including Tuesday night’s “safety” recorded by Buffalo against Ohio.
Worst Officiating Moments in Sports History
2013: Buffalo Awarded Safety on Intentional Grounding
Midweek MAC games are one of the more entertaining parts of college football’s November schedule. However, the Buffalo-Ohio game from Tuesday night won’t be remembered for a quality game between two potential bowl teams. Instead, awful officiating will overshadow Buffalo’s 30-3 win.
Early in the second half, Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton was pressured out of the pocket and threw a pass to avoid a sack, which resulted in an intentional grounding call. However, the referees ruled Tettleton was in the endzone, and Buffalo was awarded a safety.
But there’s only one problem: Tettleton wasn’t in the endzone – he was on the four-yard line.
2012: Green Bay vs. Seattle: Golden Tate’s Hail Mary "Catch"
Replacement officials made plenty of glaring errors through the first three weeks of the 2012 NFL season but none bigger than the one that occurred between the Seattle-Green Bay matchup on Monday night. With the Seahawks trailing 12-7 with seconds remaining, quarterback Russell Wilson heaved a pass to the corner of the endzone, which appeared to be intercepted by Green Bay defensive back M.D. Jennings. However, the officials ruled Seattle receiver Golden Tate wrestled away control and award the catch to the Seahawks. Making matters worse for Green Bay, Tate clearly pushed off on a defensive back, which allowed him to get into position for the catch.
Tuck Rule – Oakland vs. New England in 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs
It’s not unusual for the rules to be changed, tweaked or adjusted from season to season, depending upon the circumstances. For the most part, the changes go largely unnoticed unless something happens to bring them into the spotlight. That was certainly the case in the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs as the entire world was introduced to what would become known simply as the “Tuck Rule.” Playing in a driving snowstorm at home, New England trailed Oakland 13-10 in the fourth quarter with less than two minutes remaining. Still out of field goal range, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dropped back to pass and dropped the football after being hit. The Raiders recovered and seemingly put an end to the Patriots’ hopes. However, upon further review, referee Walt Coleman reversed the call on the field of a fumble, according to the “Tuck Rule,” which was introduced in 1999. Coleman explained on national TV that Brady had started to throw a forward pass and then lost possession of the ball as he was trying to bring it back, tuck it, into his body. The overturned call made it an incomplete pass and Brady was able to put Adam Vinatieri into position to make a game-tying 45-yard field goal with 27 seconds left on the clock. The Patriots would go on to win in overtime and eventually capture the first of their three Super Bowl titles during the 2000s.
1972 Russia vs. United States Olympic Basketball Gold Medal Game
The United States Olympic basketball team entered the 1972 Games in Munich having never suffered a loss in the history of the Games, and it looked as if their streak would continue with a 50-49 win over the Soviets in the gold medal game. The officials had other ideas. In perhaps the most controversial sports ending ever, the Soviets got three attempts to score. After two questionable clock resettings, a length-of the floor pass was thrown to Alexander Belov, who made a layup at the buzzer for what remains in the record books a 51-50 win — even if the members of the U.S. team refuse to acknowledge it.
1999 Pittsburgh vs. Detroit: Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss
Normally, the refs’ eyesight is called into question, but on Thanksgiving Day 1999, an official’s hearing was the issue. As the Steelers-Lions game headed into overtime, Luckett conducted the coin toss. Steelers captain Jerome Bettis called “tails,” but somehow Luckett heard “heads,” awarding possession to the Lions, who took advantage and won the game. The blunder caused the league to change its coin toss procedure — too little, too late for the Steelers.
Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga’s Near-Perfect Game
Detroit starter Armando Galarraga was one out away from a perfect game on June 2, 2010 in Comerica Park against Cleveland when the Indians Jason Donald stepped up to the plate. Donald hit an easy grounder to Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera who flipped the ball to Galaragga covering first, only to watch helplessly as first base umpire Jim Joyce incorrectly ruled Donald safe. Galaragga would retire the next batter for the one-hit shutout, but in the minds of the Tigers team and fans in attendance, the damage had already been done. After the game, Joyce willingly and profusely admitted his mistake and took it upon himself to personally apologize to Galaragga. Both men deserve credit for how each of them handled the situation, as they will be forever linked because of it.
Jerry Meals’ Bad Call at Home Ends 19-inning marathon between Braves and Pirates
No one wants to see any baseball game end on a bad call at home, let alone one that lasted 19 innings, but that’s what happened in Atlanta on July 26, 2011. Actually, the game didn’t officially end until July 27 as the Braves and Pirates started on Tuesday night and played into the early hours of Wednesday morning to settle this one. And in the end, the only reason it ended in the bottom of the 19th was because home plate umpire Jerry Meals egregiously called Julio Lugo safe at home although Pirates catcher Michael McKenry clearly applied the tag before Lugo’s foot crossed the plate. What exactly Meals saw only he can answer, but all you need to do is listen to the contrasting calls by the teams’ respective broadcasts and realize that there’s little doubt he missed this one.
The Fifth Down Game – 1990 – Colorado at Missouri
The Buffaloes claimed a share of the 1990 national championship with Georgia Tech, but the season was overshadowed by a controversial finish against Missouri. Colorado was awarded a fifth down late in the game, which allowed it to score the game-winning touchdown. Quarterback Charles Johnson spiked the ball on first down, while running back Eric Bieniemy was stopped at the one-yard line on second down. On third down, Bieniemy was stopped at the goal-line, which forced Johnson to spike the ball on “fourth down”. However, Johnson’s spike on first down apparently went unnoticed, as the Buffaloes scored on a touchdown run on "fifth down" to seal the victory. The Buffaloes went on to finish the year with an 11-1 record and a 10-9 victory over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.
Mike Renfro Ruled out of Bounds in 1979 AFC Championship Game
The Pittsburgh Steelers were the NFL’s team of the 1970s winning four Super Bowls in a span of six seasons (1974-79). The team they defeated to get to the last two during this run was the Houston Oilers. While the Oilers put up little resistance in the 1978 AFC Championship Game, losing 34-5, it’s the one that took place the following season that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Oilers fans. Leading 17-10 in the third quarter, Houston wide receiver Mike Renfro appeared to put the Oilers in a position to tie the game, when he made an incredible catch in the back corner of the end zone. Television replays confirmed the catch, but the officials, who did not have the benefit of instant replay back then, ruled it an incompletion. The Oilers had to settle for a field goal and the Steelers would go on to a 27-13 victory.
Kent Hrbek’s “Hard Tag” on Ron Gant in 1991 World Series
Who says baseball is not a contact sport? In Game 2 of the 1991 World Series Minnesota first baseman Kent Hrbek and Atlanta outfielder Ron Gant were involved in a play that not only would have made a wreslter proud, but turned out to a be a pivotal play when all was said and done. Trailing by one run in the top of the third, Gant singled to left off of Twins starter Kevin Tapani to seemingly put runners on first and third with two outs and David Justice on deck. The throw from the outfield rolled away from the fielder briefly, however, resulting in Gant taking a fairly wide turn around first. After retrieving the ball, Tapani threw to Hrbek at first in hopes of catching Gant off base. Even though Gant made it safely back to the bag before Hrbek could apply the tag; the burly first baseman lifted Gant off of the first all the while keeping his glove on Gant. Umpire Drew Coble called Gant out, ending the Braves’ threat, and the Twins would go on to win Game 2 by one run, 3-2, and the World Series in seven. Tapani made the out possible by throwing back to first, with Hrbek receiving two points for a textbook takedown.
1998 – Seahawks vs. Jets – Vinny Testaverde’s "touchdown"
Although the Seahawks benefitted from a blown call on Monday night, they were the victim of poor officiating in 1998. In an early December matchup in New York, Seattle lost 32-31 on a phantom touchdown run by Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde. With no instant reply, the Seahawks were unable to challenge the call, even though it was clear Testaverde never crossed the goal-line.
1986 World Cup: Argentina vs. England
The 1986 World Cup Finals between Argentina and England was one of the most incredible soccer matches in the history of the sport, due in no small part to Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal. Maradona punched the ball with his left hand past the English keeper and into the goal during Argentina’s 2-1 win, and referee Ali Bin Nasser failed to see the infraction. Afterward, Maradona famously commented that his goal came “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God,” and the phrase entered the sports lexicon.
Cardinals-Royals: 1985 World Series
The Cardinals were three outs away from winning the 1985 World Series, when umpire Don Denkinger infamously intervened. The Cardinals led the Royals three games to two and took a 1-0 lead into the ninth inning of Game 6. The inning's leadoff batter, Jorge Orta, sent a chopper to first baseman Jack Clark, who tossed the ball to pitcher Todd Worrell at first base, clearly beating Orta by a half-step. Clearly, that is, to everyone but Denkinger, who called Orta safe, leading to a two-run rally. The Royals went on to win Game 7 over the deflated Cards 11-0.
2006 Oregon vs. Oklahoma: Onside Kick Error
The Sooners suffered a huge blow to their national title hopes in 2006, as bad officiating cost Oklahoma a win in Eugene. The Sooners led 33-20 with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, but Oregon scored on a 16-yard touchdown run by Dennis Dixon with just over a minute to go. The Ducks recovered the onside kick, but replay clearly showed the kick hit one of their players before going 10 yards. Although instant replay was used, Oregon kept the ball, and Dennis Dixon hit Brian Paysinger for a 23-yard touchdown pass to win the game. The officials from the Oklahoma-Oregon matchup were suspended one game due to the missed calls late in the fourth quarter.
1979 Rose Bowl – USC vs. Michigan: Charles White’s "touchdown"
The 1979 Rose Bowl matchup was a much-anticipated game between two top-five teams. USC entered the 1979 Rose Bowl at 11-1, while Michigan was 10-1. In the second quarter, Charles White appeared to score, which would give USC a 14-3 lead. However, a closer look revealed White fumbled before he reached the endzone and was incorrectly ruled a touchdown by the officiating crew. Considering the final score was 17-10, the “touchdown” proved to be the difference and propelled USC to a finish of No. 1 in the UPI poll.
Dallas vs. Buffalo Stanley Cup: Goal or No Goal?
Brett Hull of the Dallas Stars scored the Stanley Cup series-clinching goal in triple overtime of game six against the Buffalo Sabres. Too bad it was apparently illegal, even if the officials allowed it to stand. When Hull scored, his foot was in the crease, but the puck was not — a no-no, even though the NHL tried a semantics tap-dance around the issue by claiming they had issued a memo allowing goals when the scorer had control of the puck prior to his skate entering the crease. The Sabres' reply? "No goal," which became the franchise rallying cry.
2005 – Florida vs. Vanderbilt – Earl Bennett’s “celebration penalty”
Winning at Florida is never easy for any team in the SEC, but Vanderbilt’s last win in Gainesville occurred in 1945. The Commodores were on the verge of an upset victory in 2005, as Jay Cutler hit receiver Earl Bennett on a six-yard touchdown pass with less than one minute to go to bring Vanderbilt within one point. The Commodores were prepared to go for two, however, the officials flagged Bennett for excessive celebration, which forced the Commodores to kick the extra point and play for overtime. Bennett’s penalty is one of the most egregious celebration flags in recent memory and prevented Vanderbilt from a two-point conversion that could have won and allowed the Commodores to get bowl eligible.
Chuck Knoblauch’s Phantom Tag in 1999 ALCS
The Red Sox were trailing the Yankees by one when they batted in the bottom of the eighth in Game 4 of the 1999 ALCS. With one out, Jose Offerman singled off of Andy Pettitte to seemingly start a rally. It was quickly snuffed out, however, when John Valentin grounded into an inning-ending double play, one that was made possible by Knoblauch’s now-infamous “Phantom Tag” of Offerman at second, with an assist from second base umpire Tim Tschida. The Yankees would go on to score six more runs in the top of the ninth to put the game away and then put the Red Sox away in with a series-clinching win the next night in Fenway Park. The hated Yankees would break the hearts or Red Sox nation yet again in the 2003 ALCS, this time in seven games, before exacting some revenge the next year in a season that would finally put an end to the “Curse of the Bambino” after 86 years.