Refereeing Myths: The “Make-up Call”

In a recent courtside conversation (with an experienced player – you know who you are), the question of the make-up call was raised.  The concept being that if a referee makes a poor call at one end of the court, then they are entitled to level the playing field for the disenfranchised team at the next opportunity.  I was shocked to hear the idea that players truly believe that referees will actively trade calls between teams if they think they have made a bad call.

To be clear from the very start: there never has been, and never will be, an accepted practice of makeup calls in basketball. I really hope that people are happy to hear that.

  Everyone knows “Two wrongs don’t make a right” – so, why should it have a place in refereeing basketball?

In my opinion, the term is overused across both punditry and journalism, as a way to rationalise a seemingly bad call by a referee, which is followed by a quick call benefiting the original offenders without considering that one or both calls were correct.  It has now become such an accepted term that even players, coaches and spectators are under the impression that it happens regularly in games.  Part of me can see why they would think this; on a psychological and emotional level they want to believe that a referee will see their own imperfections and make amends for it in the form of a soft foul or dubious violation.  It’s a natural human reaction for a player to justify a referee’s following calls for as makeup calls, even if they are obvious and correct whistles.

The NBA - "Where Makeups happen"?

Perhaps the term is so prevalent due to bad press over the years in the NBA where it is claimed to be common place, so much so that an Associated Press journalist claimed to have heard referee Bill Spooner tell the Timberwolves coach that he would “get it back” for him. The “it” being the 2 points from a poor call earlier in the game against Houston. With this level of exposure in the most televised league in the world, I am not surprised that players might think it’s a global practice.

Though in the reality of officiating basketball, there are a number of reasons that this doesn’t happen and, under consideration, it is easy to see that it cannot occur without jeopardising the whole basis of refereeing and damaging the sport for everyone involved.

The biggest reason that referees do not get involved in make-up calls is obvious: it’s dishonest.  Officiating is based on honesty and a lack of compromise by the official to intentionally disadvantage a team. Of course, following the rule book referees will apply advantage/disadvantage as the rules and interpretations demand but the idea of a make-up call is ‘intentionally changing your standards in order to even out your own mistakes’.  That isn’t acceptable and I don’t see how players would want it.  Everyone knows “two wrongs don’t make a right” and so why should it have a place in refereeing basketball?

"You know you owe me, right!" - If I had a pound for every time I had heard that...

Asides from the large matter of integrity, there could be hours of discussion and reasoning as to why the concept doesn’t work and why it is never applied as players may think it is.  At what stage does the opportunity to blow a “makeup call” end? What can you call it on? A foul? A travel?  Does the player have to benefit or just the team?  Acting in such a way would only compound the problem and create a bigger issue for the referee when he/she has to make up for the make-up call. That wouldn’t get us (players, coaches or referees) anywhere.

With all of these subjective matters, it would be impossible for a referee to take all of this into account and create a situation result where neither team feels hard done by.  That’s why honesty is the best policy and the referee doesn’t let one call influence the next few minutes of their game looking for a possible travel or a weak hand-check just to even it out.

If a referee makes a mistake (and I will be the first to hold my hand up), we move on and make sure that we are focusing on the next call that is within our control. We make sure that we keep our integrity intact by making the right call.


After a successful schoolboy career in St. Malachy's College, Paul moved on to on/off stints as a varsity player and local league player for UUJ. Having completed his refereeing course as a junior in summer 2000, and doing the odd game in Belfast, Paul soon realised that he was becoming a better official than he ever would be a player. He hung up his boots for the preference of a whistle in 2004 and began refereeing consistently as part of the National League Panel. In 2006, he won the "Young Referee of the Year" award from Basketball Ireland (exactly 100% more awards than ever received while playing) and in 2008 moved to the panel of referees for the Irish Men's Superleague where he has been a regular fixture for 4 seasons.


  1. Paddy

    / Reply

    Good article. Referee statistics can be just as interesting as the players’:

    (especially Dan Crawford’s 72.5% home team win rate over a 70 game sample size in the 2010 season…I’m hoping that’s simply down to variance)

  2. Paddy McG

    / Reply

    Excellent read Paul. Well done.

  3. Kobe

    / Reply

    Unfortunately this only applies to good referees Paul!

  4. Andrew Sanders

    / Reply

    I think Paul particularly might enjoy this piece on Neil Lennon’s recent anti-referee statements:

  5. Scott

    / Reply

    There was a paper on NBA makeup calls at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this year.

Leave Comment