November 09, 2009
I've argued enough about it today to know that clearly I'm in the vast minority about LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson's non-pick Saturday at Alabama, which I agreed with the game officials was too inconclusive to overturn*:
I'm much less interested in the rightness or wrongness of the call, though, which is just another of the age-old officiating debates/complaints that follow most close games and get passed down through the years. What continues to fascinate me this year is the overwhelming attention heaped on specific calls on a weekly basis. Typically, I'd fully expect LSU message boards to fill threads with screenshots detailing all the ways they think they were screwed, and even to find multiple breakdowns of a penalty mark-off waiting in my inbox. This is what angry fans do.
But never do I recall the kind of cheap media storm (mostly regional, but in some instances national) on a weekly basis that's followed the SEC's national showcase game on CBS now four of the last five weeks. The conference's officials are not the only ones this year that have blown critical calls, and it's not the only league that's publicly acknowledged bad calls or suspended officialsmedia scrutiny has led to players being suspended, coaches being fined and the head of the conference's officials can be mocked by national outlets for suggesting the conference's officiating is "not broke."
That may be true, if media reaction to sketchy calls has changed more than the call themselves. But at this point, with big-game controversies becoming more "when" than "if," somebody has to back up the refs while they've still got some credibility to spend. Nick Saban gave it an emphatic shot today at his weekly press conference:
"I mean, can somebody stand up and fight for these guys and what they do for the game -- and probably get less for it than anybody?" Saban said.
His voice rising to a shout, Saban pointed to how little the officials make for the trouble, saying, "If I was an official, and I was making what I made officiating because I love the game and I love doing it, and I was getting criticized by the media - including our announcers on TV -- like these guys are getting criticized, I'd step back and say, 'I think I'll go to the lake this weekend. You can have this.' That's what I'd do."
By now, I suspect plenty of SEC fans would love to send officials to the lake -- they'll even pay, and send their brother Fredo to pick the refs up.
Saban, the conspiracy theorists will note, has every reason to defend the refs because his team has been the beneficiary of a pair of their most controversial calls in the fourth quarters of its last two wins. But maybe he inadvertently hit on a better solution to the SEC's PR problem than heavy-handed apologies, suspensions and fines: Heavily invest in officiating. Increase training, step up scrutiny behind closed doors and at least consider a corps that -- if not necessarily employed full-time -- has to spend some requisite number of hours during the week working on his performance. And most importantly, make sure everybody knows about it, and that stories about the SEC's efforts to improve officiating make as much of a mark as the stories about its effort to sign lavish television contracts did last summer.
The conference isn't going to stop bad calls, or (in the current environment) rabid fan and media reaction to bad calls; . But it is rapidly reaching the point where it needs to do something to reaffirm to people that it's deploying some of its well-publicized riches to the doing whatever it can.
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* - Save your e-mails, please. I've watched this many, many times, argued the specifics, and my opinion is what it is.