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.