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We Have A Problem

It’s time to talk about the state of officiating in this country.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I never know how to begin columns like this. Partly because I never know if I should even write this type of column. I didn’t do it after the LSU-Texas A&M game, or the LSU-Bama game from 2014 or any of the long list — and regardless of your fandom, you have a list — of games that have been marred by notable, egregious failures of officiating.

Nobody wants to be the “whiner,” right?

“Well you just should’t let the game come down to officiating.”

“Just make (insert other play) and it doesn’t matter.”*

We just accept this. Does anybody else find that just a little bit weird? Because we don’t when it comes to any other mistake in our sporting events. Athletes lose playing time or even jobs when they make mistakes. Coaches and front office/support staff do as well — and sometimes they’re not even the ones who make the mistake.

But the officials just move on, and we just let it all go.

Take what happened in the NFC Championship on Sunday. Could Dan Arnold have caught Drew Brees’ first quarter touchdown pass? Sure. Brees could have stuck with the called run on first down following the fourth-quarter pass to Ted Ginn, or completed what should have been an easy throw to Michael Thomas.

Or, when the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman plowed into the Saints’ Tommylee Lewis to break up a third-down pass, side judge Gary Cavaletto or back judge Todd Prukop could have done the right thing and thrown a flag for pass interference. It wasn’t a bang-bang play, it was as clear of a call as you’ll ever make in that situation. Robey-Coleman himself has admitted that he was doing what defensive backs are usually taught to do in that situation — commit the penalty to avoid giving up the reception (because the penalty is still better than the end result of the play).

It was a blown call so egregious a sports book in New Jersey has refunded money over it.

Games turn back and forth over all sorts of little things — but the big things, the big plays, when the spotlight is brightest, when those things happen, everybody else on the field lives with their mistakes. Cavaletto, Prukop or head referee Bill Vinovich — who could have easily overruled his subordinates — do not have to.

Why is that?

Google NCAA basketball referee Teddy Valentine. The first page worth of stories will detail how he was barred from officiating NCAA tournament games last year, or Big Ten conference games this year. Yet he will still call games for other conferences this year — including the SEC.

Does that not seem completely insane to anybody else?

How about Major League Baseball, which continues to employ Jim Joyce after blatantly and indisputably ruining a very easy first-base call that broke Armando Galarraga’s perfect game in 2010. A call so infamous it has its own Wikipedia page.

This is all to say nothing of the rampant problems in college football — particularly in the SEC, where blatant, institutionalized incompetence in football officials is consistently defended by the league office and head of officials Steve Shaw.

Is officiating a difficult job? Absolutely. So is coaching or playing football. Do we accept that excuse when a defensive back swipes to break up a pass and misses? Or a quarterback overthrows an open receiver down the field? Or a coach calls a play that fails? They are expected to perform, and if they fail to do so they are replaced.

So why are the officials exempt from that?

Why do we just accept that “human error” is a part of the game? Especially when we already take the measure of using instant replay. And the further measure of putting it exclusively in officials’ hands in the final two minutes of a game.

Further partial measures will be proposed from this: making a defensive pass interference play eligible for review; or adding different degrees of a targeting foul, as was proposed at the American Football Coaches Association convention last week.

Rules for governing a process should serve it in their application. When they don’t, adding more layers to the process only muddles those waters. The better answer is more transparency to the process: make names and biographical information of officials a part of basic game information, along with weekly post-game media availability. The NFL does at least make its officiating leadership somewhat available in this regard. Major conferences would do well to do the same. And not in Steve Shaw’s preferred conference call or email format.

On that note — rumors continue to swirl regarding ties from the officiating crew from Sunday to the city of Los Angeles. While this shouldn’t raise conspiracy talk (what does the NFL do on any regular basis that would make anybody believe they can successfully — and quietly — conspire against anyone), it does beg the question of how can the NFL bet this stupid? Nobody — NOBODY — should be officiating games involving the city that they live in. Are Prukop or Cavaletto Rams fans? That’s pretty doubtful, because Rams fans in Los Angeles don’t exist. Does living in Los Angeles make them biased? No. But why would any sports league ever let that question ever be raised in the first place? You don’t let a Californian officiate a Rams, Chargers or 49ers game anymore than you let a Louisianan work a Saints game or a Texan a Cowboys game. Likewise a Floridian a Miami, FSU or UF game, or an Alabaman to Auburn or Alabama. This is a just basic, cover-you-ass PR tactic, AT MINIMUM. And the fact that the NFL failed at it represents a staggering display of institutionalized incompetence.

But at least some transparency to that incompetence might help drive change.

At the college level, centralize that authority on a national level. The rules of these sports don’t change by conference, so why should conferences have their own officials? The NCAA makes more than enough money to finance the operation. Oversight might remove the staggering issues we see conference-to-conference — which can even impact player safety, as we saw with ACC officials in the Fiesta Bowl.

And then there’s technology: league offices already confer with replay officials in-game. Why can’t that be a regular part of the experience? If the NFL can be on the phone with Sean Payton moments after a game to apologize for a blown call, they can be in touch with people in the stadium and relaying things down to the officials in real-time. Why are we still relying on the naked eye on the goal line when microchips and laser beams exist?

Why are officiating crews capped at seven (professional) or eight (college) people? If the goal is to get the calls right, then it’s more than worth it to have eyes at every angle. And that goes further for replay.

These are reasonable fixes to a problem that may not be completely solvable, but can certainly be improved upon.

Of course, there’s that old saying; the first step is admitting that the problem exists.

*Ed. Note: if you’re just going to parrot these talking points in comments, please know that water-is-wet is not something anybody needs to hear when it’s raining.