It hasn't been a banner year for officials.

By Alaa Abdeldaiem
December 18, 2018

It’s fun at this time of the year to look back on the best of the past 12 months, but it can be more fun to look at the worst. This week, will be laughing, cringing and shaking its head at some of the worst things in sports from 2018. Previously: The 10 Worst Coaching Decisions of 2018.

The life of a referee is thankless. Do a good job, and nobody notices you exist. Mess up once, and in comes an avalanche of criticism. 

Of course, some of that criticism is warranted. Complaining about officiating is so fundamental to the sports experience that it's usually easy to ignore, but there are some decisions so bad that they make focusing on the referees unavoidable.

From the controversial ending in Game 1 of this year's NBA Finals to an ugly botched fumble recovery decision that could have decided the NFC East, 2018 hasn't exactly been a banner year for officials.

Here's a look back at the year's worst officiating decisions:

10. Well-known NCAA referee removed from Final Four after his crew messes up in first-round game

It's been a brutal two years for college basketball referee John Higgins, who was pulled from this year's Final Four after he was part of a crew that mishandled a call in a first-round game between Auburn and the College of Charleston.

Higgins, who in October filed a lawsuit against a Kentucky radio station for inciting fans to harass him, has officiated seven Final Fours, including three-straight before 2018. But even he wasn't immune to accountability after bad calls. With Auburn leading 61–58 in the final seconds, the College of Charleston committed a foul. The referees sent Jared Harper, an 82 percent free-throw shooter, to the line when, in fact, the player who had been fouled was Chuma Okeke (69 percent from the line). It was obviously a huge error that could have impacted the game. 

Except here's the thing: Higgins wasn't involved in the call. In fact, he wasn't even on the floor. Too bad no one leaped to his defense.

9. Eagles screwed out of clear fumble recovery

The call came on the opening kickoff of the Eagles' key NFC East matchup with the Cowboys in Week 14, and it may have changed the course of the game.

Cowboys' returner Jourdan Lewis fielded Jake Elliott's kickoff a yard deep in the end zone and opted to bring it out. Malcolm Jenkins stripped him at the Cowboys' 18-yard line, and Kamu Grugier-Hill of the Eagles recovered.

End of story. Except it wasn't.

Officials on the field originally ruled Lewis down by contact. The Eagles challenged the call, and after replay video was shown on the big screen at AT&T Stadium, Philadelphia's offense and the Cowboys' defense marched onto the field, believing the ruling would be overturned.

But the replay official in New York ruled there was "no clear recovery" of the fumble, even though there wasn't a Cowboy initially anywhere near the football. 

Instead of the Eagles taking over inside the Dallas 20, the Cowboys maintained possession, and they eventually won 29–23 in overtime. 

8. Thunder eliminated from playoffs after officials choose not to call foul on Paul George shot

Nine out of ten times in the NBA, referees would call a foul on a play like Paul George's three-point attempt in this year's Western Conference playoffs.

But April 27 was not one of those times.

Utah defeated Oklahoma City 96–91 in Game 6 to advance to the second round, but Thunder fans had a legitimate gripe about a non-foul call on a potential game-tying three. Trailing 94–91, George pump faked at the top of the key before launching one from beyond the arc. The fake drew Rudy Gobert into the air, and the Jazz center clearly made contact with George as he rose to shoot.

Referees decided not to blow the whistle on the play. Though one missed call isn't ultimately make-or-break, the timing of the miss magnified the gravity of the gaffe—especially because it had Oklahoma City sent home packing.

7. Carlos Ramos gives Serena Williams a game penalty in U.S. Open final

In a sport where umpires rarely get any attention, Carlos Ramos certainly got his fair share of it during the US Open final in September.

The Portuguese umpire found himself entangled in one of the year's most heated controversies after penalizing Serena Williams three times during her 6–2, 6–4 loss to Naomi Osaka, ultimately awarding the Japanese player a game after Williams called Ramos a "thief."

The chair umpire wasn't technically wrong in his officiating decisions. With Serena up 1–0, 40-30 in the second set, Williams's coach Patrick Mouratoglou gestured to Serena from the player box, a clear code violation. But to enforce a rule that's known for being subjective and rarely enforced at such a big moment? That's just overkill.

6. Hugo Cruz misses obvious false start in Browns vs. Chargers 

As if Cleveland needed any help losing a game at the start of the 2018 season, referees made it easier with one of the most blatant blown calls the NFL has seen this year.

Late in the first half of Week 6's matchup between the Browns and Chargers, NFL down judge Hugo Cruz didn't see Chargers' left tackle Russell Okung go into motion before the snap and missed an obvious false start. The Browns' defensive linemen assumed the play was going to be blown dead and stopped rushing—giving Rivers a nice clean pocket to work with. The play resulted in a touchdown for the Chargers in a 38–14 blowout win.

The Browns weren't the only ones surprised by the no-call. The false start was so obvious, the NFL fired Cruz eleven days later. It was the first time in the Super Bowl era that an NFL on-field official had been fired midseason.

It's always tough seeing someone lose their job, but if any error was going to serve as a wake-up call, this was one of them.

5. Raheem Sterling trips over grass and gets awarded a penalty

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling was absurdly awarded a penalty for tripping over himself in a Champions League 6–0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk in November.

Sterling was lining up to take a shot when his own toe got stuck in the turf. Apparently, that was enough to convince referee Viktor Kassai that his team deserved a shot at the goal, which was converted by Gabriel Jesus to make it 2–0 for Manchester City.

How that was a penalty, no one may ever know. But if there was ever an argument for VAR in Champions League play, it's this one.

Manager Pep Guardiola said after the game that Sterling should have told the referee he hadn’t been fouled and Sterling later issued an apology

4. Myles Jack robbed of a fumble return for a touchdown in AFC Championship Game

There were a lot of salty Jaguars fans after January's AFC Championship game against the Patriots, and for good reason.

Several questionable calls in the game had Jacksonville fuming, feeling that officials may have played a part in denying the team a Super Bowl berth. One of those plays occurred in the fourth quarter, when Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack tackled Patriots running back Dion Lewis after a 20-yard reception. Jack stripped Lewis of the ball, recovered it and was ready to take off toward the endzone.

Until, that is, a quick whistle blew the play dead.

Once a play is ruled down by contact, the subsequent return can't be reviewed. The Jaguars went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, and the Patriots scored on two of their next three possessions, erasing a 10-point deficit to win 24–20 and clinch their 10th Super Bowl appearance.

3. All those early-season NFL roughing the passer calls

For the first few weeks of the 2018 NFL season, the league's new roughing the passer rule appeared to be a black eye that would never heal. First it was Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews in Week 2 against the Vikings. Then it was Matthews again in Week 3 against the Redskins.  Dolphins defensive lineman William Hayes tore his ACL while trying to avoid landing directly on Derek Carr in Week 3, which he said was due to the new rule emphasis

By Week 4, roughing the passer calls became so ridiculous, many left wondering how anyone in the league was supposed to play defense.

Luckily for everyone involved, the panic died down as the weeks went on. Otherwise, players like Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh may have taken a new approach to sacking the quarterback.

2. Block/charge call on LeBron swings Game 1 vs. Warriors

Leave it to the NBA's referees to spoil an epic 51-point performance from The King himself and derail what might have been a series-altering Game 1 upset by the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.

With a lineup consisting of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors shouldn't have needed extra help to put Cleveland away in the series opener. But they did. And they got it in the final minutes of a furious back-and-forth fourth quarter.

Trailing 104–102 with 36.4 seconds left, Durant sliced through the lane but was called for a charge after plowing into James, who was well outside the restricted area. Officials stopped to review the play, and although it was determined James was outside the restricted area, they changed the original call to a block after concluding James "was not in a legal guarding position."

Durant sinked a pair of free throws to tie the game. J.R. Smith had an infamous mental lapse. The Cavaliers lost 124–114 in overtime, and the rest is history. 

It's hard to pick which aspect was the most painful for Cleveland, but that non-call is certainly at the top of the list.

1.  Two instances of targeting go unpunished in USC-Washington State

Unlike the NFL, this year's college football games were riddled with dangerous quarterback hits that weren't flagged when they should have been.

Two of those hits took place during USC's 39–36 win over Washington State in September. The first and largely forgotten shot occurred at the end of the third quarter when Washington State's Logan Tago rammed his head into USC quarterback JT Daniels's. Not only was no targeting penalty called on the field, but a Yahoo Sports report revealed that an untrained Pac-12 employee played an integral part in keeping Tago in the game. That's right: An individual who was not trained to be part of the replay crew overruled trained officials in the stadium's replay booth AND in the league's command center.

And believe it or not, that hit wasn't even the game's most controversial at the time.

Late in the fourth quarter, USC linebacker Porter Gustin delivered this hit on Cougars quarterback Gardner Mindhsew.

The result? No targetting call, and another embarassment for the Pac-12.

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