Everyone saw the bizarre ending to the Miami Duke game on Saturday night. Depending on your point of view, it was a wonderful example of how great college football can be or it was a travesty for which there is no real remedy.
If you missed it, Miami completed a series of laterals on a kickoff return to score the game winning touchdown with no time on the clock. A flag was thrown for an illegal block in the back, and the play was reviewed. Review showed a Miami ball carrier down, but after the lengthy review, the officials announced they were picking up the flag and awarding Miami a touchdown and the game.
The outcry was immediate and one sided, especially on social media. Everyone with access to a television, other than the Hurricane faithful, disagreed with the conclusion of the replay officials. Even more galling was the assertion by the officiating crew that the block in the back was not a block in the back. Only certain items can be reviewed on replay and whether a block in the back was proper is not one of them.
Plainly put, the officials blew it. They didn’t call the play correctly and changed the outcome of the game. This wasn’t the only game where that happened. In every game, every weekend, these type of missed calls or wrong calls happen. Rarely do they so clearly and definitively impact a game, like they did in Durham, but they do affect games. And after the game, what happens? As far as the public knows, nothing.
Coaches are prohibited by most conferences from commenting on the officials or the calls. So, when a big call or no call changes a game, naturally the media will ask the coach about it. He can’t answer. He’s not allowed to. Through a secret process the school can petition their conference. They can complain. Apparently discussions and reviews will take place. None of it will be public. Even if there is nothing improper going on behind the scenes, the fact that all proceedings are hidden gives rise to the appearance of impropriety and, if you are so inclined, conspiracy.
This article does not seek to demonize officials, who can be wrongly scapegoated by fans when it is not at all warranted. The vast, vast majority of the time officials do very good work. With very few exceptions, they know the rules better than anyone in the stadium or commentating. They have developed skills about what to watch and when and where. They have honed their abilities to know what to call, what to let go, how to manage the game and how to enforce rules and penalties that are greatly more complicated and nuanced than a network broadcast would lead you to believe.
All that being said, calls are missed. Rules are misapplied, and game results are changed. Denial of reality or ignoring these inconvenient facts does not make them go away.
Eighteen year old students are asked to stand before cameras and explain their split second decisions, but we shield the grown men we charge with enforcing basic fairness from the same scrutiny. What fairness is that?
Perhaps interviews are the answer. A post game press conference or a teleconference on Sunday afternoon would work. The scrutiny of the media is a tried and true American method of accountability. Officials, who have no voice either, may welcome the opportunity to explain a call.
Perhaps scorecards issued by the conference for crews, games or individuals would help. Players and fans should know how the game was affected by officiating. If the outcome wasn’t, that should be emphasized as well. The good and the bad should be known.
Conferences hire officials, and conferences have interests. Would the ACC, for example, like a playoff team this year? Yes. Is Clemson the best bet? Yes. Would beating FSU all but guarantee the Tigers will make it? Probably. Would the ACC be willing to tell their officials to do something to help that happen?
You answer to that question is probably related to your propensity to believe conspiracy theories. If you want to argue yes, you’re speculating and it’s just conjecture. But, because what the officials do or don’t do isn’t subject to meaningful, transparent accountability, we don’t know. We can assume; we can hope, but we don’t know.
It’s not a question of if a game was affected by the officials. Every game is. It’s a questions of how much the game was affected. Was the winner or loser changed?
Players are conditioned by their coaches not to complain about officiating or blame the officials for anything. that’s the way they should approach it. Players can only do their part. Worrying about a call or non-call is counterproductive.
However, it is willful ignorance to believe that the only people affecting the outcome of the game are the players. Games can be close; teams can be evely matched, and when that happens little things like a ball call, a non-call or an improper rule application can be there difference between winning and losing.
Officials are human, and mistakes will be made, mistakes that change games. That fact must be acknowledged. It cannot be eliminated, only managed. And the way to manage it is to be honest about it existence and effects. The way to do that is with transparency and accountability.
Any institution tasked with fairness or justice must be actually fair, but it is almost as important that people know that it is fair. How can they know? They go see for themselves. It’s the reason we don’t have secret courts. Justice dispensed without public scrutiny is no justice at all. Secret systems give the appearance of impropriety, at best. At worst, they actually create a breeding ground for abuse and conspiracy.
Are conspiracies on-going in college football? Are officials changing games to please one power or another? I don’t think so. I really don’t. I think the professionalism of the officials themselves prevents it. I think the conferences know that if something like that were to occur it would hurt them in the long run more than they could gain in the short turn. I really don’t think there is abuse, but I don’t know. I don’t know, and you don’t either, and until some system exists where there is clear, public, transparent accountability, we won’t ever know.