Top 10 Most Controversial Calls in Sports

The world of sport elicits fierce emotion, pride and loyalty. It drives people to push the limits and boundaries of human skill and prowess. And the world of sport would not be what it is without a li

The world of sport elicits fierce emotion, pride and loyalty. It drives people to push the limits and boundaries of human skill and prowess. And the world of sport would not be what it is without a little good old fashioned controversy. With this in mind, we're plunging deep into the realm of disagreement, split-second decisions and franchise-changing calls.

You are never aware of the referee until he or she makes a mistake. Some of these calls were so controversial at the time that even the White House got involved. After being told that Bud Selig would not be giving Armando Galarraga his perfect game, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs jokingly stated that, “We’re going to work on an executive order.” However, as Galarraga noted after the game, without a hint of irony, “Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s human. I understand.” We could all take a lesson from his sportsmanship. The U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team could have used a Galarraga after being beaten by the Soviets in 1972. U.S. Guard Doug Collins stated that, "These were the two strongest countries in the world fighting for supremacy and basketball was ours… We were the kings. And there was no doubt we wanted to make sure a message was sent.” After they were beaten, the U.S. Team sent a message making history for all the wrong reasons.

Even when officials make the correct call the arbitrary, unknown and/or inane rules that they must enforce can enrage fans everywhere. For example, though it is cold comfort to Raiders Nation, in 2013 the NFL overwhelmingly voted to scrap the infamous ‘tuck rule’, with only Pittsburgh voting against and Washington and New England abstaining. Dallas Stars forward Brett Hull continues to insist his Stanley Cup-winning goal was legal. “You can tell people that [it was legal] a million times and they just will not listen.” To be fair, sometimes it’s hard to hear reason above the raucous noise of emotion.

10 Pine Tar & Going Too Far - Kansas City Royals vs. New York Yankees, 1983

It was a game that lasted nearly a month and, no, they weren’t playing cricket. With the Royals trailing 4-3 in the ninth with two outs, George Brett hit a two-run, go-ahead home run at Yankee Stadium. Yankees Manager Billy Martin ordered head umpire Tim McClelland to examine Brett’s bat and make sure that the pine tar he had legally used on his bat did not exceed 18 inches past the knob, which would have been contrary to the rules. McClelland measured the tar up to 24 inches, ruled that Brett’s homer was nullified, ejected Brett and declared that the game was over. Brett had a legendary meltdown and had to be restrained from attacking the umps. Eventually, Brett was vindicated when American League President Lee MacPhail ruled that the bat should have been taken away, but the home run should have stood. The game concluded almost a month later with a Royals victory.

9 Calvin Johnson’s Phantom TD - Detroit Lions vs. Chicago Bears, 2010

The 2010 Season for the Detroit Lions saw some bizarre calls go against them, but none was so blatant as the last-minute incompletion ruling in their season-opener against Chicago. With Detroit down 19-14, Lions WR Calvin Johnson appeared to score a beautiful game-clinching TD, holding on to the ball inbounds. However, the league ruled that he had not completed the process of the catch. The explanation is now known as the “Calvin Johnson Rule”. Not exactly what any player wants to be remembered for. Whether you choose to blame the referees or the NFL's overly complicated rule book, the Lions were robbed and the effect trickled throughout their season.

8 Thanksgiving Coin Slip - Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Detroit Lions, 1998


Heading into overtime in the NFL regular season used to hinge dramatically on a coin flip. Far too often, the team who won the coin flip would go on to win the game. Steelers RB Jerome Bettis swears he shouted “tails”, though referee Phil Luckett claims to have heard “heads-tails” and, according to NFL rules, he was obligated to follow the first word he heard. The Lions won the toss, would go on to win the game and the rules were eventually changed, though this surely has to be the easiest blown call ever made. The Steelers would go on to lose the rest of their games in the 1998 season, finishing 7-9 after heading into this Thanksgiving clash well in the playoff hunt at 7-4.

7 The Yankees’ “10th” Man - New York Yankees vs. Baltimore Orioles, 1996 ALCS

Who would have thought that a 12-year-old would become the inadvertent MVP of the first game of the ALCS? That’s exactly what the fates had in store for Jeffrey Maier when he reached out over the right field wall and altered the course of two storied baseball franchises. With the Yankees down by one, Derek Jeter launched a shot to right field and just before Orioles’ outfielder Tony Tarasco could catch it, Maier, who idolized Jeter, intercepted him. After that catch, the idolization must've been mutual. Undoubtedly, the catch should have been ruled fan interference, though it wasn’t and the Yankees would go on to win the game and the series. In a twist of fate that would be laughed out of Hollywood as too unrealistic, Maier would go on to have an exceptional college baseball career and was nearly drafted in 2006 by none other than the Orioles.

6 Hull In The Crease - Buffalo Sabres vs. Dallas Stars, 1999 Stanley Cup Final

Though the rule has since been changed and it was a dreadful rule to begin with, there is indisputable video evidence that Brett Hull’s skate was in the crease and, thus many believe, Hull’s goal should have been nullified. Hull argues that the NHL had actually circulated a private memo earlier in the season that stated a player’s skate could be in the crease and score if he was in control of the puck. “We all knew that they had changed the rule, but obviously the NHL decided they weren’t going to tell anybody but the teams… They changed the rule… But nobody knows that.”

Sorry Brett, we didn’t get the memo.

5 5th & 1 - Colorado vs. Missouri, 1990

It was the game-winning drive that never should have been. The Colorado Buffaloes were driving on Missouri with under a minute remaining and needed a touchdown to win. They were stopped just short of the goal line but got the first down. Charles Johnson, Colorado’s starting QB spiked the ball. On second down, Colorado failed to run the ball in. They burned their final timeout to stop the clock but the officiating crew failed to change the down marker. The run failed again on third down. On fourth down, Johnson, believing that it was only third down, spiked the ball, which should have ended the game. Fifth down and Johnson ran the ball in himself and though he was stopped short of the goal line, he was awarded the touchdown. The game ended with a semi-riot as irate Missouri fans tore down the opposing goal posts. The scene was such bedlam that the Colorado coach couldn’t hear someone having a heart attack behind his own bench.

4 A Royal Tuck Up - New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders, 2001 NFL Divisional Round

The ‘Tuck Rule Game’, ‘The Snow Game’, ‘The Snow Job’- call it what you will but the Raiders got hosed. With the Patriots trailing 13-10 and two minutes remaining, Raiders CB Charles Woodson had a clear strip-sack of Pats QB Tom Brady. The play was ruled a fumble on the field, though was eventually reversed upon review and New England would go on to win in overtime. From there, the Pats would win three Super Bowls and after a trip to the Super Bowl the following season, Oakland has failed to return to the playoffs. As of December 2014, head referee Walt Coleman had never officiated another game involving Oakland. This was also the last game ever played at Foxboro Stadium as the Pats moved the following year to Gillette Stadium.

3 A Man with a Hand - Argentina vs. England,  1986 World Cup

Give this man a hand. Give him his due credit for his unmatched creativity. A quick glance back at the referee and he began celebrating. Diego Maradona had pulled off the greatest deception in World Cup history. Just how did he do it? Anyone who’s seen the video and know what’s about to happen is dumbfounded at how the Tunisian official could miss such an obvious hand ball. Surprisingly, not even the commentators were aware of what had just occurred. It took two television replays and over 30 seconds before the announcers first clued into the fact that something had gone seriously awry. And it was another two minutes before legendary English commentator Barry Davies, who had to confer with his colleagues who were down on the English side of the pitch, could state with any authority that Maradona had handled the ball. All this to say, a referee’s job is never easy and hindsight is always 20/20.

2 The Cold War - Hoops Edition - USSR vs. USA, 1972 Olympics


No American basketball team had ever lost an Olympic basketball game, but in 1972 they fielded their youngest team in history and that inexperience would eventually lead to a crushing defeat at the hands of their geopolitical arch-nemesis. With one second remaining and after the U.S. took a one-point lead, the referees awarded the Soviets a controversial timeout. Even more contentious was that a member of FIBA intervened in the game, something the U.S. maintains was not allowed, and ordered the referees to put three seconds on the clock. Play resumed and the Soviets were unable to score, but because the game clock was supposedly in the process of being reset, the Russians were awarded another chance to score, which they capitalized on. For the first time in Olympic history, a spot on the podium was abandoned as the Americans refused to validate the farcical result. They have yet to accept their silver medals.

1 Galarraga’s “Imperfect Game” (Detroit vs. Cleveland: 2010)

Baseball is a traditionalist sport in the truest sense of the word. At no moment in time was that title more deserved than when Commissioner Bud Selig refused to rectify a clear injustice and award Armando Galarraga his perfect game after a blown-call by umpire Jim Joyce on the final out of the game. While this story had the potential for unfettered controversy, the manner in which Galarraga reacted to the blown call provides a lesson to us all. “I have a lot of respect for the man. It takes a lot to say you're sorry… I'm sad, but I know that I pitched a perfect game. The first 28-out perfect game.” The pitcher may not have gotten his perfect game, but he did he get a free Corvette. Joyce and Galarraga are currently working on a book titled Nobody’s Perfect.

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Top 10 Most Controversial Calls in Sports