Tips on Handling Blowouts

By Jerry Grunska

Sometimes games are less than games; they are a mish-mash of horrendous play and lopsided scores. Officials can either contribute to the mayhem or else help to tone it down and ease it to a comfortable conclusion.

Premise number one: We don’t want to subvert any basic rules. We are obliged to observe the rules. Premise number two: There is a spirit to the rules, undefined areas of ambiguity, in which considerations of context should be taken into account when applying the code. That means that borderline calls – ones that could go either way – should result in favorable decisions for the team that exhibits qualities of ineptitude and which may be way behind in the score.

But that simplistic statement presents complications too. Here are examples:

A basketball team opens the game by scoring 15 straight points.

A soccer team punches in a trio of goals shortly after the opening kickoff.

A football team picks up fumbles and scores a pair of touchdowns before the other team has run a single play.

A baseball team scores seven runs in its first at bat, against none for the opposition.

Officials first of all should not act in haste and jump to questionable conclusions. Teams can come back from early disadvantages, and they should be allowed to have that chance.

Truly, there are no borderline foul balls back to the screen in baseball and softball, nor are there borderline baskets in basketball. But there are borderline pitches and borderline traveling violations. Should the officials begin making distinctions to even up competition right off the bat? Probably not. The initial burst of superiority may be a fluke; it could be an illusion. A game must move into a pattern before it is evident that one team has overwhelming skill.

An arbitrary guide is of little use, but as a possible reminder let’s put it at a four-touchdown lead early in the second quarter; a dozen-run advantage in the third inning; a point spread of 20 to open the second quarter; or four goals at the close of the first half.

Officials can contribute to a smooth flow in such games by personally hustling the ball into play, by moving swiftly themselves to cover play action and by encouraging the team that is woefully in arrears (often by gestures rather than by voice).

The danger for an official in blowouts is losing concentration. One cannot operate in a lackadaisical manner and at the same usher a game to a satisfactory ending. Premise number three, then: You cannot stop runs from scoring or baskets from pouring through the nets, but you can have an effect (avoid the word control) on player behavior.

For instance, you can prevent the winners from taunting or puffing themselves up. You can aid the losers in adding resolve and determination to their efforts. You can also deal directly with coaches who seem to revel in running up the score and humiliating opponents.

Another practice to avoid is giving players, coaches and spectators the impression that you’re bored or would rather be anywhere else. Slumped shoulders, sloppy signals and a lack of hustle must be avoided.

Remember also that the tide can turn quickly. Not every team simply rolls over when it falls behind early. A grand slam, a touchdown and recovered onside kick or an injury to a key player on the leading team can change the complexion of a game in short order. It’s often difficult to regain focus once it has been lost because it seems the outcome has been decided. The key, then, is to stay alert and not allow your guard to fall.

But if a rally doesn’t occur, how can you help the game along? Borderline calls go against the team that is substantially ahead. Minor transgressions of the rules that are not potentially harmful may be interpreted in favor of the team with lesser skill. That’s not saying you should wink at the rules. Do not cheat. Rather, if a runner moves slightly out of the line between bases to elude a tag and that act aids the team that is behind, such a move may be permitted with no clear harm derived. That is what making a fine distinction means. A swipe tag sometimes does not nick the runner’s foot is another case of making a judicious distinction.

If a runner plunges into the line in football and is momentarily stopped, a distinction can be made about whether the play has ended.

The whole approach for officials working a game with a pronounced point differential is making careful distinctions. For officials, a game need not get out of hand.

Jerry Grunska is a frequent Referee contributor. A retired educator, he lives in Evergreen, Colo.


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  1. Jimmy Carter says:

    Goodarticle overall,but I take exception to the comment “…begin making distinctions to even up competition…” NEVER! Officials do not have the authority to “even up competition” in any way. All we should do is do all we can to get the game over with as soon as possible in order to prevent injury & embarrassment.

    Being more selective in which fouls we call (backside holding, extra half-step traveling, outside edge of the black ball or strike) will move the game along, but we must be careful not to take too much liberty or WE make a travesty of the game.

    I have a “code word” with my football crews. It comes from an old joke we’re all heard before (I’m sure). In blowout football games (late 3rd/4th qtr), when it has become obvious the lesser caliber team won’t come back, while retrieving the ball in the side zone, I simply tell my flank officials “mustard & relish” and relay the ball to the umpire. They know that means, (and this is the old joke): “if the ball goes out of bounds & comes back without mustard & relish on the laces, he wasn’t out of bounds far enough. Keep the clock running!” No one else on the sideline knows what it means.

    There is also the understood directive to put the flag in their pockets unless player safety is involved, to slow our pace slightly during dead ball activity, and to do more pro-active officiating (talking to players, getting between them, etc.), all of which takes more time off the clock without causing injuries.

    Integrity is the key to what we do, and anything that gives the impression we are trying to “even up competition” can lead to horrific results in PR & reputation, both individually and for the local chapter/organization. We need to avoid, no…prevent that at ALL costs.

    • how about the two offensive pass inecreftnee calls on jordy nelson at kansas city on 12/18/2011? two in a row? the announcer/analyst, hall of famer daryl johnston, hinted that the chiefs head coach was smooching it up with the ref/s before the game, giving pointers on packer receiving techniques .replays showed that no offensive pass interference was evident, a call that is supposed to be flagged only in blatant circumstances???this b.s. job of refereeing helped thwart the packer perfect season, as they wound up getting shut out in the first half for the first time in aaron rodgers’ career as a starter!!!

  2. In the Lions-Packers game today, New Years 2012, the refs never called a thooudcwn on the field, which prevented a review confirmation. This was immediately following the use of a challenge which left the Lions with no challenges for the rest of the day. His left foot was down, the ball in hand, and the his right foot was on the ground also, albeit dragging with momentum. He ultimately fell out of bounds, but both feet were down before that happened. It was a bull-sht laden game everytime the Lions scored yards, the refs dropped penalty flags and took back the majority of them. Had the thooudcwn been properly credited to the Lions, the score would have ended at 47 to 45 Lions and not 41 to 45 Packers. [Excuse me if my score is not exact – it was earlier in the day and I only just stumbled across this site]. I do have a question is it possible for a reversal of sorts? For a review that credits the Lions with the missed thooudcwn call? The NFL really needs to work out this overabundance of dumb rules that play should have been capable of being challenged whether two challenges had been lost or not. That is the dumbest one so far, in my opinion.

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