The triumph of the human spirit is part of what makes sports special. Humans sometimes exceed when all logic suggests they shouldn’t. They also err in unimaginable ways. Bad calls, dropped balls, poor decisions have all led to climatic (or anti-climatic, depending) endings. It’s bad enough when your favorite player drops a pass, but when a referee makes a bad call that’s out of the hands of both teams, it’s downright tragic and often infuriating for those that get the short end of the stick. Sometimes it’s not even the fault of the referee. Here are ten of the most controversial calls to have ever happened in the world of sports.
10. US Team World Cup 2010 — 2 Disallowed Goals
The US trailed in this game against Slovenia and needed a furious second half rally. Losing 2-1, the United States scored in the 82nd minute to tie this game up. Four minutes later, on a free-kick, the US went ahead on a brilliant goal. Except that the referee blew the whistle and disallowed the goal. While there was a lot of holding and shoving on the free-kick, most of it seemed to have been committed by the Slovenian team. With the goal disallowed, the US ended the game in a tie. Then, needing a victory over Algeria to advance, the US was again victimized by the referees when another goal was disallowed on a wrongly called offside. Luckily, the US managed to score a goal and advance despite the terrible calls.
9. 1998 Thanksgiving Game — Coin Toss
It’s not that difficult to call heads or tails, just ask Jerome Bettis. Heading into overtime, Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers, presumably said “heads-tails” as the coin went into the air. Phill Luckett, the referee claimed he heard “heads” and when the coin came up tails he awarded the ball to the Lions. However, the telecast clearly caught Bettis saying “tails” and Luckett claimed he went with what he heard Bettis say first, which was heads. The Lions not only won the coin toss, they went on to win the game with a game-winning field goal on the first drive of overtime.
8. 1985 World Series — Blown Call
Leading the Royals three games to two, the Cardinals were well on their way to winning the 1985 World Series. They held on to a 1-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning when Jorge Orta came to the plate. Orta hit a routine grounder to first base. Jack Clark fielded the ball and tossed it to the pitcher covering first base for the out. Except that the first base umpire Don Denkinger called Orta safe. The Cardinals vehemently protested, but to no avail. The Royals would then proceed to score two runs in the bottom frame and went on to win the game, tying the series at 3-3. The following night the Royal would demolish the Cardinals 11-0, winning the World Series.
7. 2003 NLCS — Fan Interference
On occasion, a fan inadvertently becomes involved in a call, and it never ends well. In the 2003 NLCS the Cubs lost the series to the eventual World Series champion Marlins, but what’s most remembered, more so than the Cubs losing game seven at home, was the game six fan interference call. Steve Bartman became universally shunned and hated for doing what any fan would do, reaching for a foul ball. Bartman deflected a ball that might have been caught my Moises Alou in the eighth inning. The Cubs protested, claiming fan interference and demanded an out, but the umpire remained steadfast in his decision. What made this call so tragic was that not only was the umpire in the right, but Bartman became the scapegoat for a tragic ending and eventual loss in the NLCS. Cubs fans sent death threats to Bartman and drove him into hiding. Many fans forget that game seven was a close affair and that the Cubs blew a two-run lead, sending the Marlins to the World Series.
6. 2001 AFC Championship Game — The “Tuck Rule”
In the 2001 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots benefited from an obscure “tuck rule.” They turned what many thought was a game-ending fumble into an incomplete pass and beat the Oakland Raiders on a game-winning field goal. The officials interpreted this rule correctly, but that didn’t make it any easier to swallow. The Raiders protested of course, but the results of that game were upheld – as was the now famous “tuck rule” which states that any time the quarterback is attempting to tuck the ball into his body after starting a forward motion the pass is incomplete, and not a fumble.
5. 1972 AFC Championship Game — The Immaculate Reception
It’s been called the Immaculate Reception, and it might be the most famous play in football history. With 30 seconds left in the game, Terry Bradshaw attempted a pass to John Fuqua. What happened next is nothing short of a miracle – if it even happened at all. Bradshaw’s pass ricocheted off Fuqua as he was hit and sailed backwards in the air – where a running Franco Harris snagged it just before the ball touched the ground. Harris ran the ball into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown. Replays (while not used at the time) have done nothing to sway the argument and remain inconclusive. Harris and the Steelers contended the ball was live, the Raiders argued otherwise. To this day no one is certain exactly what happened – but one thing’s for sure; the referees awarded the touchdown and the Steelers won the game.
4. 2010 Detroit Tigers — Imperfect Game
As Armando Galarraga rushed to cover first base on June 2, 2010, his mind must have been doing cartwheels. He was about to achieve the pinnacle of pitching perfection, throwing a perfect game. The play was close, but Jason Donald, the runner, was clearly out. First base umpire Jim Joyce called him safe. Galarraga handled the situation well, but he had to be unbelievably disappointed. Joyce, after viewing replays, admitted his mistake and later apologized, but that didn’t change the game result. While the play was incredibly controversial, it did contribute to implementing a replay system in Major League Baseball.
3. 1986 World Cup, Argentina — “Hand of God”
What has since become known as the “Hand of God,” might be one of the most the most famous World Cup goals ever scored. If it’s not the most famous, then it’s certainly the most notorious. Six minutes into the second half of a match with England, Argentina’s Maradona rushed to the net and played a deflected high ball off his fist and into the net. Amazingly, the referee somehow missed the hand-ball and the goal stood. Four minutes later Maradona would later go on to score a second goal – which many called the “goal of the century,” and Argentina would go on to win the game.
2. Ali vs. Liston, 1965 — The “Phantom Punch”
We’ve all seem the image of a defiant and screaming Muhammad Ali standing over the prone Sonny Liston. It remains one of the most iconic images in boxing and a highlight of Ali’s career. They say a picture can tell a thousand words. They might just need ten thousand to explain this one. In 1965, in a rematch between Liston and Ali, Ali knocked Liston to the ground on a punch that never connected. The “phantom punch” was so quick many missed it. Ali himself wasn’t even sure he hit Liston, and asked his corner afterwards if the punch had connected. Ali might not have believed what happened, because he stood over Liston screaming at him to get up and fight. Liston remained on the ground for well over 20 seconds and eventually Ali was awarded a knockout. Yet, boxing rules state Ali should have returned to his corner and that knockout shouldn’t have counted. To make matters more confusing, many accused Liston on taking a dive in the fight and the circumstances surrounding this fight remain muddled.
1. 1972 Olympics — Gold Medal Basketball Game Incident
In the final seconds of the 1972 Gold Metal basketball game and trailing 49-48 Doug Collins was fouled by a Soviet player. He went to the free-throw line and hit the first shot. As he attempted the second, the game horn inexplicably went off. Collins still managed to hit the shot, but the Soviet team claimed they had called a time-out. One of the assistant coaches on the Soviet Team even rushed the court in complaint. Rules stipulated that a time-out couldn’t be called or given after the first free-throw attempt and a technical free-throw should have been awarded to the US team, but wasn’t. Then things got really strange. Play resumed and the US prevented a shot, but the clock was incorrect. The US players thought they had won the game, but officials put three seconds back on the clock and restarted the game again. Amidst a flurry of confusion the Soviets somehow passed the ball in and scored a layup to win the game. The US protested the victory, but they were still only awarded silver. To this day, not one member of the 1972 US basketball team has accepted their silver medal.