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The latest officiating controversies…

involve high school.

Usually, people get all up in arms about the pros or major college.  But it was a pretty quiet year (knock wood) in NFL officiating (I firmly believe Mike Pereira is the #1 reason why), and I don’t recall any severe issues in college football, which I’ll admit I don’t follow too closely.  And the NBA and NCAA hoops season have gotten off to a big start.

But one can still hear breathless incredulity and even anger at officials on the national sports shows.  It’s just that they’re going after high school officials lately.

There have been two major high school issues in the past month or two.  The first took place in one of the Massachusetts state football finals.  A player for Cathedral High School stuck his fist in the air en route to what would have been the go-ahead touchdown with four minutes left.  The referee called him for celebrating before he got to the end zone. Since Massachusetts, to my understanding, plays by NCAA rules rather than NFHS rules, that meant they went with a new NCAA penalty…rather than enforcing the penalty on the ensuing kickoff, the touchdown was nullified and the penalty enforced from the spot of the foul.  Cathedral got the ball at the 35-ish yard line with four minutes left, but they didn’t manage to get the TD and wound up losing.

When I watched the video, I’ll admit I wondered if the play could be considered a taunt.  If I understand the rule correctly (and I don’t know how the rule is written), it necessitates an unsportsmanlike act.  In my gut, I don’t know that this play qualifies.  HOWEVER, I would imagine that the Massachusetts rules interpreters and coaches have been over that rule repeatedly, and have even discussed how the penalty would be enforced.  If there were meetings with coaches where they said “Tell your players not to do a damned thing until they cross the goal line,” then the official who threw the flag was doing the absolute right thing.

Fact is, I’m not a football official, nor familiar with the situation in Massachusetts, so I’d need a whole lot more context before making a decision.

Now, I never watch yelling-head sports shows on ESPN.  I find I prefer periodontic work.  But I will admit that I’m uncomfortable in any situation where I am agreeing with Skip Bayless in the above link, since I honestly believe he picks out his opinions based on incorrectness and unpopularity.  But they don’t have the background knowledge of either the rule or the way Massachusetts officials decided to enforce it.  And the story that it was the kid’s 18th birthday?  Yeah, I feel for the kid, sure–but did they really expect the official to (a) know that fact and (b) factor it into his decisions that day?  That’s crazy.

Also, notice how Julie Foudy is trying so hard to do the only thing that matters in this situation:  to read the rule.  It seemed (from what little I could hear of her over the junior-high shouting of the men on set) like she disagreed with the call, but at least she was disagreeing with it through examination of the rule rather than some inflamed sense of empathy that we as officials just can’t have. And in the face of the self-evidently inaccurate headline of “Celebration Penalty Costs Massachusetts Team Title” (really?  they couldn’t have scored from near the red zone in four minutes?  there were no other moments or mistakes in that game that could have turned it Cathedral’s way?), that’s appreciated.

The biggest jerk in all of this was Boston mayor Thomas Menino, who apparently has so few other pressing issues in his job that he took the time to stereotype and bash officials/rulesmakers:

“I think sometimes these rules are written by frustrated athletes,” Menino said from Cathedral, according to Wednesday’s Boston Herald. “They never participated in a sport, and they don’t know what it is to be excited. You play in a football game, you run for a touchdown, and you do something special.”

I know that Menino, as a politician, isn’t accustomed to letting facts interfere with a soundbite.  But NCAA rules, like rules at pretty much all levels, are written by administrators, coaches, and officials.  Almost all coaches and officials have played the sport they coach/officiate, and I’d bet that a good chunk of administrators who want to be on a rules committee have as well.  I can almost forgive guys like Stephen A. Smith for yelling crap about a high school official: that’s where his bread is buttered.  But the mayor of Boston?  He needs to stuff a sock in it.  On top of being factually untrue, his quote sets a horrible example for the kids of his city and state.

Anyway, that lasted a couple of days of the news cycle.  And then, the next time officiating was in the news, it was in my home state.

Seems an uncle of a player from Highland High School (a rural school outside of Yakima) didn’t care for the basketball officiating in his area, especially in the Tri-Cities association (about a half hour east of Yakima).  He therefore filmed his nephew’s game at Connell High School (a rural school outside of the Tri-Cities) on December 22nd.  And since you’ve all likely seen the video, I don’t have to tell you what he filmed.

I certainly don’t believe he filmed 6 flagrant fouls.  (Sure, I’ll play the game that everyone else is playing:  Foul #1 is a common foul with a stern talking-to, #2 the same–although a rebounding foul on 34 preceding that maybe was a better idea, #3 intentional at the least, borderline flagrant–I’d probably toss him if he’d gotten the stern talking-to on #1, #4 intentional not  flagrant, #5 flagrant–didja notice the not-very-stern talking-to that the bald Caucasian official gives #34, which includes a smile and a pat on the butt?  This was not the time for that–and #6 probably a common foul).  But I do believe that the film shows, at the very least, a crew having a really bad day.  I’m not going to get on the bandwagon of  “they should never officiate again.”  But if I were in a game where all of that was going on, I’d be eager to get an intentional or a flagrant foul just to get out the game out of the crapper.

In any event, I find it interesting that the Tri-Cities Herald article about the controversy contained the following quote from the blogger:

[Michael] Christenson, 32, said that his intention was not for the video to go much further than the small community outside Yakima that surrounds the basketball program. His nephew, Tanner Christenson, plays guard for the Scots.

His choice to show the video to his friends locally, and then send it to the WIAA to express his concerns about officiating?  Totally appropriate.  However, his actions don’t match with his words, as this article shows:

Christenson emailed a copy of the video and demands for action to nine Tri-City Herald employees. He also used a Twitter account to send the video to the NCAA, ESPN, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Tony Kornheiser, Mike Wilbon, TNT’s Kenny Smith, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Jim Rome. The Twitter account has since been deleted.

So it feels to me like the poster didn’t just have the intention to express his concern about local officiating, but to nationally humiliate those involved.  There’s no other reason to send the video anywhere outside of state lines.  (What in the world is the NCAA doing on that list, for instance?)  The net result has been death threats against #34 and harassment of his family and the school.  Thankfully, I have not seen the officials’ names in any article, or they would surely have suffered similar invasions of their homes and privacy, which would be just as wrong as the threats against the players (whom I wish could have had their names kept private, but of course, it’s too easy to look up the roster of any high school team on-line).

Much of the conversation about the video is about who is to blame for the rough play.  Christenson says it’s the officials: there would have been “no hard fouls” if the officials hadn’t called it tight to begin with.  Not sure I buy that–a player like #34 was set on creating havoc that night–but I will agree with him that the officials could certainly have minimized the damage he and his teammate did.  Others blame the players, who were, after all, the ones committing the acts of violence.  Others blame the Connell coach, who didn’t pull the kids from the game, and who, it could be argued, has obviously created a culture where such actions are acceptable.

Everyone is overlooking the obvious point that everyone involved is at fault.  There’s no reason to stop at blaming just one of those groups.

We showed this video at our officials’ meeting this past Sunday, and I’m sure my association wasn’t the only one.  There are two lessons to learn here:  #1.  Don’t be afraid to upgrade fouls to intentional and flagrant whenever merited.  Some officials don’t want to “impose on the game,” but that’s just a cowardly justification for taking the easy way out (and that’s not an attack on the Tri-Cities officials: it’s something we’re all guilty of).  #2:  EVERY MOMENT is filmed now.  In fact, in many ways, HS officials are in greater danger than others, since someone with an agenda can create a pretty damning document that doesn’t have context.  While I cannot see a context in which a player is not booted for foul #5, that’s not the point.  The point is that every second of every game, from pulling into the parking lot, through the game, through kibitzing at the restaurant after the game, all the way until we pull into our driveways, we must assume we are on camera.  We therefore cannot ever be lazy about our calls, our words, or our demeanors, no matter the score or the situation.  We’ve got to go by the book all the time, or we’ll wind up on MSNBC and CNN, where non-officials with no knowledge of the difficulty of the job will call for our heads.  And for that, even though I haven’t been friendly here to my colleagues who officiated the Highland/Connell game, I feel for them in the aftermath.  I can say that I’d have done a better job, and I do believe that…but maybe, in a different situation, I’d have an equally bad night–just like maybe a bad night you’d have or Michael Christenson would have if he ever put on a whistle.  In the end, we’re all one bad night and one YouTube posting away from the dark place they are right now.

Or, to put it another way…the film doesn’t lie.  It might present a specific version of the truth, but it doesn’t lie, and we as officials can’t forget that we’re always on tape now.

Protected: Game Log 1/12/12: Another nothin’ night

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