The easiest column in sports writing, the one guaranteed to strike a sympathetic chord with readers, is some variation on “referees are terrible. Who will deliver us from this terrible scourge of referees?” Unless you actually are a referee, you’re unlikely to complain because every fan has seen his team ill-served by an official’s call (or non-call) along the way. The closer the game, the higher the stakes, the less time remaining in the game — all those factors magnify the scrutiny.

First, some general observations. Officiating is hard, and the men and women who enter into the profession deserve respect. That doesn’t mean they are perfect — no one is. That doesn’t mean they can’t be criticized — that’s part of sports unless the criticism turns ugly or threatening outside the lines of play.

One other talking point that makes me wonder is that officiating in college and pro sports is “worse than it has ever been.” We certainly have more technology. Thus we can review every play from a variety of angles and in super slow motion to detect any error.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are “more” bad calls. Players, coaches and fans have complained about officiating since there have been sports. “Casey At The Bat” was written in 1888 and features an outcry of “Kill the umpire!” when Casey takes a called third strike. Who knows what mistakes, misunderstandings and malfeasance took place in the days before instant replay?

This weekend brought a renewed emphasis on one aspect of officiating that affected both Alabama’s narrow loss in its basketball game at Tennessee and, in the game which has dominated national sports conversation since Sunday, the NFC Championship Game between the Rams and Saints. The question that arose from both games: how does one officiate a game at the end, and what should a referee “let go?”

In Knoxville, Alabama, trailed by one point in the final 10 seconds but didn’t get a last shot off because of a traveling call on John Petty. There seemed to be a violation when Petty caught the ball, although it took slow-motion to be sure. (There was probably a worse call a couple of minutes earlier when Kira Lewis was whistled for a player control foul.) Alabama coach Avery Johnson shrugged it off at his Monday press conference, noting that his team had chances to build a comfortable lead earlier and failed to execute on several plays.

No one in New Orleans is shrugging off the missed pass interference call late in the Saints’ game. There is universal agreement that the call was missed and that Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams interferes with receiver Tommylee Lewis. One intriguing thing about the whole controversy from the perspective of someone who watches more college football than NFL. In a college game, the argument wouldn’t have been about pass interference but the obvious helmet-to-helmet contact. It’s impossible to imagine a college referee ignoring the hit. In the NFL, they seem to do it all the time. (The pro league’s commitment to player safety is a broader issue for another column.) Even if, somehow, the call had been missed, there could (and would) have been a booth review.

Blown call or not, New Orleans had other chances and failed to capitalize. That, however, does not mean the NFL shouldn’t take a hard look at what happened. And if it was a case of “letting them play” at the end of a close game, it was an example of how that can quickly go wrong.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

 

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