Are our expectations too high? The lonely life of those who officiate

My first memorable experience with a sports official came many, many years ago when I was in the seventh grade. I was playing in the Seneca County League eighth grade basketball tournament. In the middle of the fourth quarter I found myself defending an opponent who was driving to the basket.

I was saddled with four fouls which influenced my strategy. Instead of trying to stop the player, I stomped my foot and yelled at him. A silly idea perhaps, but remember I was in the seventh grade and it was better than fouling out.

Then I heard the whistle!

Sure enough the ref pointed at me and I was soon leaving the floor. Now I could tell you that I have been anti-official ever since, but that would not be true. Throughout high school I never gave much thought to the referees or umpires at all.

When I started coaching basketball, my interest picked up. Now I wanted to see how the officials were going to call the game. My team could then adjust to their style. Call it close and we will back off. Let us play and we will pick up the intensity.

What all coaches want from officials is twofold. First: be in position. Second: be consistent. Well, let’s say MOST coaches. I recall talking to an opposing coach before a game in the early 1980s and he told me with a straight face: “I expect 60 percent of calls at home and 40 percent on the road.”

I remember thinking that I’m sure the officials are not out on the floor wondering “now how many calls have I made against each team?” That was, however, what the man believed.

Fans have a simpler view of officials. They just don’t want to see any bad calls (or non-calls) against their team. Meanwhile officials can, at best, hope to be ignored. Compliments for a job well-done are few and far between. Miss a call though, and you will hear about it. It is a lonely and frequently frustrating job. It is my belief that most officials — at every level — are honest, hard-working individuals that do their best to be consistent, impartial and fair.

Whether they reach that goal or not …

Which brings us to the non-call that was “heard round the world” last Sunday. Every football fan saw the play. Every football fan has the same opinion. The refs blew an obvious pass interference call against the Los Angeles Rams against the New Orleans Saints. The call “helped” the Rams move on to next week’s Super Bowl.

Was the non-call that obvious? I saw it — indeed in slow motion replay — and I would call it obvious. If that’s not good enough for you, let me give you three others that will support my view.

The Rams player admitted he was beat on the play and hit the receiver early to prevent the touchdown. He was shocked that no call was made. Saints coach Sean Payton said later that the league office admitted the officials blew the call. Then in one that I had never heard of — bookies refunded Saints fans bets because they thought would be the fair thing to do! Enough said.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has the power to order the game replayed. That would be a mistake in my opinion and the fact that it hasn’t happened yet leads me to believe it won’t. Again — in my opinion — most fans are overreacting.

Would the Saints have won the game had the call been made? I think so — I’d give it a 99.9 percent possibility. I suppose a bad snap, missed or blocked kick could have happened after the Saints ran the clock down to a few seconds …

My suggestion is that we step back and look at things in a different light. The blown call is obvious when you look at the play in slow motion. At real speed it is more bang-bang. Officials have to make a split second decision. They get things right more often than not, but officials are human. They do make mistakes. That’s part of the game that will never be eliminated.

I’d like to think that this non-call was simply that, a mistake. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. The only way I would drop the hammer on them is if they followed a philosophy that I can’t stand. Many officials have a “swallow the whistle” mentality late in a game.

With the mistaken belief that not making a call allows the players to decide the outcome of the game rather than the officials, they are doing their profession a disservice. A non-call by an official can help determine the outcome of a game as well as a “wrong” call. Just look at the play everyone is talking about.

Televised replay has made the life of an official even more difficult. Replay however is not going to go away. What we can do is give officials more credit for their efforts. They are right much more often than they are wrong. Do they make mistakes? Of course they do. So do players and coaches. I for one, will side with the officials on this one even though in hindsight it was an obvious mistake.

Perhaps I should throw out this caveat. Would I still write this column if I was a New Orleans Saints fan?

Well, I’d like to think so!

Al Stephenson is a columnist for The Advertiser-Tribune.

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