October 22, 2009
It didn't make quite the headlines of its Southern counterpart in the process, but the Pac-10 spoke today on a couple of big calls it says one of its crews got wrong, both in Notre Dame's favor, in the Irish's last-second loss against USC. One of them was this bit of trickery, which set up ND's first touchdown in the first half, and of which Irish coach Charlie Weis was obviously proud:
Georgia Tech used the same play to score a touchdown against Clemson earlier in the season, and also had it declared retroactively illegal the following week by the ACC, for the same reason the Pac-10 said it shouldn't have stood Saturday: "The player in question was ruled to be among the substitutes leaving the field and stopped about three yards from the sideline, which makes this play illegal." I don't like this rule -- apparently officials don't, either, given their reluctance to enforce it -- but it doesn't seem to be in any doubt.
The other bogus call "overturned" by the Pac-10's postgame review was a personal foul hit along the sideline by USC safety Taylor Mays, against a player the conference said was still inbounds on the play and therefore fair game. The more memorable personal foul call against Mays -- on which he came over Parris' back on an attempted head-first hit on a key fourth-down reception that extended the Irish's final drive -- was deemed "questionable" upon review. That call added 15 yards to the reception and set up the Irish at the Trojan for a series of (ultimately failed) shots at the end zone.
And so what? Maybe if Notre Dame had managed to finish that drive and win, or at least force overtime, these fairly egregious mistakes -- a no-call that led directly to a touchdown, despite the exact same no-call having been corrected in another nationally televised game earlier this year, and a "questionable" hit that significantly aided Notre Dame's late bid to tie or win -- would have earned even a fraction of the attention the simultaneous mistakes in the Florida-Arkansas game received. And maybe the Pac-10 -- the same conference responsible for ruling ND's Robert Hughes had crossed the goal line for a critical two-point conversion against Washington earlier this month -- would have been subject to a public outcry, editorials demanding accountability, threats against the officials themselves and ultimately been forced to suspend the crew in the name of upholding the integrity of the conference.
None of that happened here. These calls didn't command any major media attention, despite occurring in a major national game between traditional powerhouses, and if the Pac-10 is taking any disciplinary action, it's doing it behind closed doors. (The conference didn't release the officials' names of any prospective punishment they might face.) Nobody questioned the Pac-10's integrity. Aside from some of the inevitable bellyaching from Trojan fans and Irish haters convinced of preferential treatment in their favor, the Pac-10 handled the situation as exactly what it is: Routine. The review/correct/move on process all comes from a basic acknowledgement that, try as they might to prevent them, bad calls are a routine part of the game. Mistakes happen all the time, on a weekly basis, and this is the process to acknowledge them and hopefully correct them in the future without weaving a sticky web of retribution that, if applied consistently, would surely engulf every ref on the roster at one point or another, while also undermining fans' faith in their competence.
Which just makes the reaction in the SEC to equally routine mistakes in the Arkansas-Florida game that much more baffling. The phantom flags on Razorbacks Ramon Broadway and Malcolm Sheppard for back-to-back 15-yard penalties on a fourth-quarter Florida touchdown drive were obviously bad calls, but the heated response against them -- which created the toxic P.R. environment that forced the league to levy a public suspension against the crew -- seemed all out of proportion to their impact on the outcome. What made the call against Sheppard more worthy of public rebuke and punishment than the dozens of other sketchy calls of all varieties that occur during the course of almost every game (the SEC did not acknowledge the pass interference call as a mistake)? As far as I can tell, it was only publicity, stoked by the same crew's terrible call against A.J. Green in Georgia's loss to LSU two weeks earlier.
The message the SEC wanted to send was that it was taking a stand for integrity. But the message I took from the suspension was that the league -- which must review and note many officiating mistakes every week as a matter of course -- will buckle under pressure from fans and media pressure on the calls they all see and collectively condemn. That much I can understand, because the conference does have to maintain some level of confidence with the mob that buys tickets and tunes in to its lucrative broadcasts. But the existence of the backlash in the SEC is confusing. The calls in the USC-Notre Dame game were just as bad, and just as potentially significant to the outcome. Is anyone willing to call for a Pac-10 official's head for the next three weeks, and they we all hear about it in an official conference announcement? I didn't think so.