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Rules Of The Game

Well, I have to do something I once thought I would never do; criticize another official's on-field performance. I am doing so now A) because the official concerned has already admitted he blew the call, B) because of the consequences of that call, and C) because once again, a lot of people are demanding things which - if they understood the matter in context - they would understand would hurt the game much, much worse than a blown call.

I am speaking of the NCAA Football game last Saturday between the Universities of Oklahoma and Oregon. Oregon won the game 34-33 after a controversial call on an onsides kick.

A blown call, and the worst kind, because it affected the outcome of the game, by giving Oregon possession of the ball and a chance to take the lead. The official who reviewed the call on replay made matters worse by backing up the wrong call and giving Oregon possession of the ball. I would normally never make such a statement about someone else's call, except that the official admitted he blew it.

This week, there were the usual stupid claims; that the officials were biased, or crooked, or that life as we know it is over since the "wrong" team won the game.

And as happens too often when people forget that a game is not real life, at least one of the officials has received death threats from some sub-human miscreant.

The officials in that game were suspended by the Pac-10 for a game, which is more serious than it sounds. You see, officials are scheduled according to their reputation, and whether or not Oklahoma fans believe it or care, even Oregon would be reluctant to bring that officiating crew back for another game. These men lost more than one game of work. When you consider that of the crew, all but maybe three of the officials had nothing to do with the blown call(s), which is a pretty harsh punishment just be being near someone who blows it. I mean, imagine if when one employee does something to get himself fired or written-up, everyone in his group or department gets it too. But no one seems to notice that injustice.

Which brings me to the next point about officiating NCAA games. To be an official means to be different from almost everyone else out there. You have to love the game, yet remain detached from cheering one team. You have to hone remarkable skills and maintain both mental and physical conditioning, yet you will be paid poorly for your work. And when the demands of the work are considered, with expectations of perfection and no notice of you unless and until you are believed to have made a mistake - at which time you will find yourself villainized and pilloried by people who don't have the first clue what they are talking about. Officiating is always short of good people, because many of the best prospects - former athletes and coaches who have played the game and know what matters - are unwilling to take the abuse they so quickly delivered to the referees. And even those officials who were willing to train and work their way through the ranks of high school games, are not always able to take on the commitments that an NCAA schedule demands.

One suggestion was that officials should be formed into a national pool, rather than hired by individual conferences. Sorry, but that is a non-starter. The various athletic conferences in college football were formed because of regional agreements, but also because of different styles of play. In the North, for example, bad weather is more common than in the South, especially when snow gets considered. Also, the turf is different in different parts of the country, and so on. While it is true that officials' organizations like to have officials who are experienced in different styles of play and who avoid getting attached to one place, it is also a hard fact that officials have real-world jobs and families, and too much travel would drive them away from the NCAA. You're just going to have to deal with conference officials, which sometimes means controversy.

Even though I hung up the whistle over six years ago, I still think like an official, and one thing which people are just going to have to get their brains around, is that an official is like a field condition - in fact the rulebook says so. That's why the Oregon win over Oklahoma won't be overturned or erased. Yes, officials made errors, and that is regrettable on many levels. But first off, it's too easy and cheap to blame officials for how a game turns out, even when they blow a call badly. The Sooners still had their chances, after all. But even if you want to insist that the call decided the game, that is no more significant than a funny spot on the field where the ball bounces differently, or the turf is slippery, or any other condition that can affect the game. The officials did their job - badly in places, I admit, but they did their job - and in the end that's part of the game. We all have seen, and will see again, calls we think were missed or blown, and some of the time we will be right to claim that. I wonder, though, how many of you would be able to stand having your mistakes played on national television over and over again? It takes a real commitment to be an official, and most of the whiners and cry-babies will never understand that.

Comments (29)

High schoolish level of rea... (Below threshold)
Dean Clark:

High schoolish level of reasoning. I'm very interested in this subject and have been very disappointed in the analytical abilities of the press. Your article, for example, does not point out that this is the second straight road game in which blatant errors from the offials have cost Oklahoma a victory. Just from a $$$$ standpoint, this is millions in postseason bucks.
I could go on, but it's been eyeopening to see that, out of dozens of articles on this subject, I have read only two that could be considered "in depth" reasoning.
I will give you an example. Last Saturday, in addition to the Oklahoma game, there were two other games (one of which, LSU and Auburn, probably has national championship implications) in which blatantly bad calls--that were potentially decisive on the final score--were not overturned by the replay officials. In all three cases, the calls were in favor of the home team. That's a problem. College football is headed toward the level of pro wrestling and it's not going to stop until we get more intelligent commentary from the media.

NEWS FLASH!Sports ... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:


Sports is not a game played by machines, but by people.

I have seen OU catch breaks from apparent mistakes too, including games played against Baylor, my alma mater. I do not recall Baylor ever getting such breaks against the Sooners. I got over it. I suggest you find a way to do the same.

And out of curiosity, besides your opinion as a fan, on what basis do you support the claim that "blatantly bad calls" were made? Please cite the relevant rule in the NCAA rulebook, and where possible the casebook references for the situation. If you cannot do this, then perhaps you should consider the strong possibility that you might be one of those no-account whiners, rather than an informed commentator.

What's the matter, was Paul... (Below threshold)

What's the matter, was Paul not around to insult and degrade the readers? Slow your roll, there, Mr. Official. No need to be an asshole to make your point.

According to ESPN.com, the ... (Below threshold)

According to ESPN.com, the ref who blew the call has taken a leave of absence for the remainder of the season.

Sorry DJ I gave up officiat... (Below threshold)

Sorry DJ I gave up officiating myself, in my case because of age,but there was no excuse for the replay officials not getting the call right.If instant replay is going to be ignored the outcome is predictable.There is no arguement possible for not over turning. it was not just one call,(The tipped pass was also a major problem)you can"t honestly miss diffinative evidence and still claim no shenaniagns where involved.The game suffers,how about the call in last years super bowl.The game can't stand much more of this.Gambling on games is the problem.

I was waiting for the inevi... (Below threshold)

I was waiting for the inevitable analogy between officiating and governing...

Jain: "Gambling on games... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Jain: "Gambling on games is the problem."

I find baseless accusations and an unconscionable lack of support by the NCAA for the best officials, which drives qualified officials away from high-profile positions a bit more of the real problem.

If you had bothered to read my article, I never tried to defend the calls. The problem, however, is not something remedied by more puerile insults thrown at the guys doing the job, or by starting with unfounded assumptions of corruption when a number of other, more mundane causes, are likely.

Since you've worn the stripes Jain, you know about the politics in some of these chapters, and how hard it is for a solid high school official to get a break and be considered by a conference like the Pac-10. And you would know how often the rules, which are created by a panel of COACHES, do not make a whole lot of sense. Remember when the NCAA had us enforcing what SOCKS the teams were wearing? Remember when we were expected to carry around tiny rulers so we could measure spike length on the field? How many people would understand the NCAA's definition of "holding", to say nothing of what constitutes pass interference?

I'm certainly not naive enough to believe that the average fan respects the officials, but letting jerkwads like Dean Clark spout off where they obviously don't have a clue is not something I am obliged to allow, either.

I personally believe that it would be a good thing for fans who THINK they understand the game to spend some time working a few pee-wee games, maybe a church league, as a referee. At least then they'd have a clue about what the NCAA officials have to do.

There was a series in The S... (Below threshold)

There was a series in The Sporting News or ESPN Magazine, where a number of fans reviewed plays (not run of hte mill, but HARD, judgement call plays- interference, posession, holding, etc), made judegements. Then they were given extensive tutorials on the rules by NFL officials. Not plain readings, but honest to gracious, this is what the rule means. They learned much of what they 'thought' they knew was incomplete. Yeah, it's a tough job.

I remember way back when when the 2:00 warning used to have a 'You Make the Call' segment. I wish they would update that (not thecall the next paly one, but rather decide what the officials should do...)

As for the colleges, perhaps if they were more easily shamed into foreiting truly ergredious errors (5 downs, illegal participation, totally wrong officiating), perhaps the ferocity of the criticisms would subside. I mean, we expect golfers to DQ themselves even on honest mistakes...

DJ this is supposed to be d... (Below threshold)

DJ this is supposed to be discussion.Do you remember the basketball official(NBA) that was fired because of Clyde Drexsler). If You think there arent dishonest officials you are mistaken. There is as much money in gambling than most corporations. It is said that on any given Sunday that 4 games will be "fixed" with this type of rumor,we can't allow this type of bad calls to stand for the good of the game and Officails every where

I always love those who hav... (Below threshold)

I always love those who have never picked up a whistle who assume that officials try to influence a game.

How many of you, when you perform your job, get a complete review of your entire day? Each decision, on tape, reviewed by your supervisor and your peers? At the college level the officials watch game tape each week. Throw the flag and watch the replay next week. Don't throw the flag, justify it to your peers.

Now in that environment, where your next assignment is predicated on how impartial you are, really state that officials will favor one team over another.

In the Oregon game please note that the replay official did NOT have access to the replay, he only had one still picture. While we were watching the replay over and over he was sitting in the booth with no information, only one picture. ABC and the NCAA were putting pressure on him to make a call. He finally did. 2 minutes later they finally showed him the tape and he knew he had made a bad call. He is now receiving death threats.

I did high school football, basketball, and soccer, and did soccer at a high level (professional, college). It ain't an easy job. You truly have to love the game. You have to put up with people who yell at you, who have no clue about the rule, but since the call went against their team you must be wrong. Most coaches do not know the rules and can't be bothered by learning.

Oregon fans, thank your lucky stars, Oklahoma fans get over it (or get a special teams group that can block). That last little bit is interesting as OK still should have won if they had just blocked, and how did the officials influence that play?

Even the conference has agr... (Below threshold)
Dean Clark:

Even the conference has agreed that the calls (in the Oregon-Oklahoma game) were wrong and the officials have been suspended. More to the point I was trying to make about the press and its lack of "in depth" reporting, the official statement by the league and the interviews with the replay official as to what information he had available do not agree. I am disappointed in the media for not following up and determining what actually went on. For example, there was a second replay official (apparently they work in two-man teams) and he has not been interviewed yet.

Dean Clark

Thanks Dean, your last rema... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Thanks Dean, your last remark was much more in line. One thing which has come out from this episode, were the conditions under which the replay official had to make the call. As Cryptoref pointed out, in a hundred-million dollar stadium they couldn't manage to get a decent TV to the guy responsible for the call? Freaking incredible, yet predictable.

And Jain, my point was not that some officials go bad, but your insinuation that this is the most common or strongest possibility is just cheap. 99% of officials do a damn fine job, under pressures and conditions which are grossly unfair to them, yet when a problem shows up your first call is they must be crooked? That kind of thing is enough to make me question whether you really were an official. Of course, I was a high school football ref here in Texas, where Football is just about the state religion. Maybe we just take it more seriously and with greater sense of ideals.

Playing the games is how we... (Below threshold)
John in CA:

Playing the games is how we measure the relative ability of the teams, and as with any form of measurement, there will always be an unavoidable measurement error. In sports, that measurement error consists of blown calls by the referees. Instant replay attempts to reduce that error, but it can't eliminate it entirely. Unfortunately, in many instances, the teams are so equally matched that a referee mistake ends up deciding the game. In engineering terms, we'd say that the measurement error is larger than the difference being measured.

As each team gets better, they will be more nearly equal in ability, especially when top teams play each other (e.g., the Super Bowl, Final Four, or World Series). Unfortunately, that means that the measurement error will have a greater impact in those instances. Hopefully the powers that be can devise ways of reducing this error.

As an aside, I happen to believe the same thing occurs in elections. There, the measurement error is miscounted and erroneously-marked ballots. Usually these little errors aren't noticed, but in a close election (see "Florida, 2000"), they make all the difference.

I don't know how to solve these problems, either in sports or politics. I just hope people can understand that when these things occur, it's not necessarily bias or malfeasance on an official's part; it's often just that we're trying to measure something that's too small to notice with the tools we have

Yeah like Oklahoma has neve... (Below threshold)
Jeff Feagles:

Yeah like Oklahoma has never benfitted from home coookin' over the years. Give me a break. I know that the only thing in Oklahoma to get excited about is a corrupt football team, but get over yourselves.

I agree pretty much with dr... (Below threshold)

I agree pretty much with drummond, for once, except for this:

The PAC-10 has a long, LOOONG history the last couple years of erring excessively of the side of PAC-10 teams. That, plus the fact that the PAC-10 schools pretty much flatly refuse to accept crews from other conferences (at least at home games) makes it look a little fishy. (I know most teams won't accept them, but the PAC-10, to my recollection, has been notorously vocal in that regard.

Something smells out west.

I live among Minnesota Viki... (Below threshold)
John F Not Kerry:

I live among Minnesota Vikings fans who are still upset about Drew Pearson of the Cowboys not being called for pass interference in a playoff game 30 years ago! Dallas won the game, and the Vikings team many acknowledge as their best ever was out. These people hold that grudge to this day. Get over it!

Full disclosure: When this game took place I was a Cowboys fan growing up in central New York, and I was very happy that the Cowboys won the game.

Ultimately, we watch with heightened emotions as people we will never meet play games for amounts of money we could only dream about. Am I jealous? Maybe a little bit, but I don't wish the athletes any ill(except when they go on strike), because they are taking money that is being offered to them. But I wonder sometimes if this obsession over sports and celebrity is healthy for America. I guess I will do my best to pass on my values to my kids while teaching them that character is, in the end, more important than popularity.

End quotes: "Football is a sport that contains two of the worst aspects of American life; Spurts of violence interrupted only by committee meetings." George Will

"Football is a game played on a field by 22 men desperately in need of rest being watched by thousands of people in the stands desperately in need of exercise." Unknown

First, I've refereed for co... (Below threshold)

First, I've refereed for college intramurals and while its nowhere near as fast as even high school football, because of the nature of the rules and the fact that some teams take it way to seriously I understand just what the officials are going through.

First, I find it fascinating that so many people here are condemning the officials for what they claim is a "blatantly" blown call. I've looked at the replay and the camera isn't on the 40 yard line looking straight down the line, which really would be the only true incontrovertible evidence. I'll accept that the ball was extremely close to the line, but considering the speed of play at the NCAA level its not surprising that the on field official missed it. In fact, its likely that he was screened from the ball by the huge crowd of players from both sides converging on the football. He made the best call he could under the circumstances.
(also remember, that part of Oklahoma's original complaint before the PAC-10 suspended the officials was that Oregon has "interfered with the Oklahoma players opportunity to catch the ball." which considering that the player in question did not signal for a fair catch is a completely bogus argument.)

Second, the "tipped pass" is not reviewable although everyone seems to want to make out that it is. And I may be wrong, but in college the pass interference rules are not voided by a tipped pass I believe (that is a pro rule.) I've noticed that a lot of people forget that college and pro have different standards, and will use the pro standards.

Finally, even if the officials bad calls did affect the game. (and I can see most do believe that the did.) The true mark of a winning team is not letting themselves get into a position where a bad call has the opportunity to ruin their chances to win. If these same bad calls had occured in a game that Oklahoma won 35-34, but still in Oregon's favor we'd have heard perhaps one small story and then it would be over. The problem isn't that the calls helped Oregon won, its that Oklahoma failed to win the game before getting put into the position where failing to recover the onside kick left them open to an Oregon rally. (if they had recovered the onside kick it wouldn't have matter when the Oregon played touched it.)

So to people like Senor Clark. Yes, the officials didn't call a "perfect" game, but that's rarely going to happen. Rather than lose your cool over it. ask if Oklahoma deserved to win in the first place considering all the other factors.

I wish the sports leagues w... (Below threshold)
The Whistler:

I wish the sports leagues would talk about officiating, what mistakes are made and how they try to correct it.

I don't think anyone expects the officials to be perfect, but then again I don't expect them to act like they are perfect.

Refusing to admit to a mistake does not help the situation. In this case I respect the official for admitting what happened.

Regarding the fair catch po... (Below threshold)
Dean Clark:

Regarding the fair catch possibility. This question was debated on a local sports show. You can fair catch a kickoff but, according to the interpretation of one of our most successful high school coaches, only if the ball has never touched the ground. In recent years, nearly all teams have been kicking the ball into the ground and having it bounce high in the air. This negates the fair catch strategy and I believe this is what happened in the Oregon-Oklahoma game.
I think, at all levels of football, the receiving team is entitled to an unobstructed play on the ball before it has gone 10 yards. After 10 yards, it is a free ball. Also, I believe a tipped pass negates pass interference in college as well as in the pros.
Moving back to my point about the press, it now appears (according to an interview with Jim Muldoon, associate commissioner of the Pac 10, that was published in the Oregonian) that the replay official had access to all the ABC replays but did not choose to look at all of them. I think it would be reasonable for a reporter to ask why he made this decision. However, I don't expect to see such an interview.

(I only use male gender qua... (Below threshold)

(I only use male gender qualifier for ease of writing)

I can't speak for American-style football (I'm an American but I will make that stipulation). However, speaking from the experience of being a soccer (real football) official, it can be tough. It's harder for Soccer officials because we don't get the benefit of a replay, we have to run more, so often when we make calls we're bone tired. It's worse for high school referees who often have to deal with racial differences and gang fights breaking out at games (especially during the winter, in my area the fog is horrible so the visibility drops like a rock). I've participated in games (played AND refereed) where officials have been accused of "rigging" the game. Often it's just whining, however obvious blown calls can ruin the game for everyone. In soccer, though, it's an art form.

eg: Diego Maradona (one of the world's greats), an Argentinian player who had a goal (I believe in World Cup '66 in Mexico) called "Hand of God goal", because he scored a goal literally with his hand...but the officials missed it! The goal stood because the officials didn't catch it. All that is part of the game.

A real team can overcome bad officiating, and soccer teams around the world know this, because there is no such thing as a "replay" where officials can change their call. In soccer, if a referee changes his call it is considered bad form amongst the officials. Even if he knows it is wrong, he must still stand firm in his decision. Once the ball is played, the decision can never be changed.

I agree Mark, did Oklahoma deserve to win? As I've stated, a GOOD team can overcome bad officiating.

Crytporef, aren't soccer fa... (Below threshold)

Crytporef, aren't soccer fans the worst?
I swear one time I did an Under 12 boys game (it was a club tournament), and the parents literally threatened my life. I had to stop the game and call both coaches to the center to tell them to control their sides...

Crytporef, aren't soccer fa... (Below threshold)

Crytporef, aren't soccer fans the worst?
I swear one time I did an Under 12 boys game (it was a club tournament), and the parents literally threatened my life. I had to stop the game and call both coaches to the center to tell them to control their sides...

I forget if I called the game early or not..

The atheletes, coaches, and... (Below threshold)
Space of aides:

The atheletes, coaches, and schools that participate in NCAA programs are held to a strict code of conduct regarding their atheletic, academic, and personal performance.

Anyone who has followed college football very long knows the kinds of severe punishment meted out for violating these rules. By comparison, it seems like the officiating crew got off light. Shouldn't the officials be held to the same high standards?

Really, the officials should be held to a higher standard. After all, they're the ones responsible to make sure the game is played fairly, rule breakers are punished appropriately, and the outcome of the game is determined by atheletic ability and preparedness, and not by someone who is unable or unwilling to make the right calls.

It seems to me this is a tremendously serious issue. If no one beleives the teams are going to be involved in a fair game, no one is going to want to play, and no one is going to want to watch.

To clarify a couple of poin... (Below threshold)
Dean Clark:

To clarify a couple of points in my previous post. When kicking off into the ground, I was, of course, just referring to onside kicks not "normal" kickoffs. And, the kickoff is a free ball after it travels 10 yards although, as was pointed out in another post, the receiving team could signal for a fair catch, and be entitled to an unobstructed attempt to catch the ball, if it had not hit the ground.

You all are missing the poi... (Below threshold)

You all are missing the point,any team should not have to over come the obvious wrong call that was over turnable.This is my point,an official may make a misstake we all do ,but there was unimpeachable evidence in the replay that the call was wrong.The call should have been over turned.The tipped pass must have been reviewable,because they reviewed it,and had the termerity to let that call go.The onfield official was made to look real bad by the replay official.This is what brings officiating to redicule,not the call itself but the stupidity of letting the call stand.

An Oklahoma resident here (... (Below threshold)

An Oklahoma resident here (one who doesn't worship OU football), with some additional information.

Here is an excerpt from a sports column by John Canzano that was published in The Oregonian newspaper, as well as in the Tulsa World newspaper.

Nevermind that the on-field officials blew the call. Nevermind that Oklahoma's defense allowed Oregon to score two easy touchdowns in 26 seconds. Nevermind that there were other blown calls on the field, including a couple of bizarre play-clock issues, and a thousand on-field plays, and calls by both coaches, that could have altered the outcome of this game a hundred different ways.


It's Riese's spleen the country wants.

So let's give it to them. But first you should know that Riese didn't see the ABC television feed that viewers watched at home, which you, your spouse and your children know showed an Oregon player touching the ball before it traveled the required 10 yards. And you should know that Riese will not talk about specifics on the call, but said: "My supervisor knows what happened up there and that's all that matters."

A source in the replay booth on Saturday said that Riese found himself crunched for time, pressured by television and the on-field referee for a rapid decision, and there was such a delay in getting the video feed to Riese that he never even got to properly review the play.

The Pac-10's coordinator of football officiating confirmed that Riese didn't get all of the replays that ABC was providing.

With all the cameras working the game that one half of the country was watching, Riese saw only a single frame of video, the source said. The angle was bad. But it appeared to show an Oklahoma player touching the ball with his helmet before it hit the Oregon player. (From other angles, clearly, it hits the Ducks player first.) With no other video immediately available, and television waiting, Riese did what he's told to do when he's out of time and has no conclusive evidence.

He upheld the call on the field.

Here is what Canzano wrote on his blog this past Tuesday (Link):

Gordon Riese, 64, the retired official working the replay booth, did what he could with the circumstances he was dealt on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

Easy to make a nameless, faceless guy the goat. But if I were an Oklahoma fan, I'd sooner blame former Sooners QB Rhett Bomar for the loss than Riese, who made one of 1000 mistakes that were made by humans during the game.

You should know, he was working on a 14-inch television monitor, and saw only one replay angle on the onside kick. There was a delay in getting him proper video. He didn't have access to the ABC feed that viewers were seeing at home.

Combine this with the fact that there was pressure from television and the on-field crew to make a quick decision. He tried. But he got the call wrong. Riese admits it and feels lousy about it. But he doesn't deserve death threats. . .

When your defense allows 14 points in 26 seconds, and then, fail to get a field goal attempt off, do you really feel the replay official is the one you should direct your ire toward?

Uh, sorry about that last p... (Below threshold)

Uh, sorry about that last post. The block-quotes didn't appear as complete block-quotes.

The main purpose of an offi... (Below threshold)

The main purpose of an official is to as close as possible get the call right,if that means discussing amongst themselves,than so be it.Too many times the official that made the call believes that his call is beyond approach.Ego enters into the equation too often.I've been in situations where the whole crew knew that the call was wrong,but allowed it to stand,over objections,just to keep the peace.

For what it's worth, Tul... (Below threshold)

For what it's worth, Tulsa World sports editor (and OU graduate) Mike Strain wrote a column for the Tulsa World in which Strain asks Oklahoma residents to forgive the replay official who made the bad call.






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