Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bad ref, bad!

It's official.

Officials, whether we call them referees or umpires, are starting to become more a part of the game than they should be.

There was Tim Donaghy, an NBA referee who in 2007 lost his career when he pleaded guilty to two counts of making calls during games to affect their point spread. More recently, there was Jim Joyce, an umpire who blew a call at first base, costing Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game against the Indians on June 2. On Friday in South Africa, there was Malian referee Koman Coulibaly, who disallowed the likely game-winning goal by the United States against Slovenia in the World Cup, leaving the game in its eventual 2-2 tie.

What is about the officials who are becoming as much a part of games as the players and coaches? Aren't they supposed to be in the background, nobly calling a game and making sure the players' skills shine through and be the only ones to affect the outcome?

Well, officials' mistakes aren't a new thing. There was umpire Don Denkinger, who called the Royals' Jorge Orta safe in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, eventually leading to the Royals beating the Cardinals and eventually winning the series. During the World Cup qualifying in November 2009, the ref missed France's Thierry Henry's obvious handball against Ireland, leading to the winning goal that allowed the French to advance to the World Cup and knocking a strong Irish side out. In 1998 NFL referee Phil Luckett blew the coin flip call at the start of overtime of the Thanksgiving Day game pitting Pittsburgh and Detroit, saying the Steelers' Jerome Bettis called heads even though Bettis clearly said, "Tails," leading to the Lions' victory.

Now I can relate to a degree. I was a umpire for Little League games for a summer when I was in high school. I know I blew calls, and the parents and coaches let me hear it (though the kids were great). Officiating a game when others are depending on you making the right call and doing it fairly in the shadows in a rough deal.

Now I'm not comparing my experience with that of officials in higher-profile games, but I am talking about the officials' and the players' responses to the blown calls. Compare and contrast the aftermaths of the cases I brought up previously:

-- Tim Donaghy spent 15 months in federal prison for his part. Since his release, he has written a book telling his side of the story and has been a pain in the NBA's side.

-- The Cardinals, who were the favorites going into the 1985 World Series against the in-state Royals, could've come back against Kansas City and won Game 7, simply delaying the championship. Instead, they choked it away, getting blown out 11-0 and allowing George Brett and company to become heroes.

-- Phil Luckett was indirectly involved with another controversial on December 6, 1998, with officials on his crew allowing the Jets' Vinny Testaverde to score the winning touchdown against the Seahawks despite Testaverde clearly being stopped. That led to the NFL instituting instant replay in all games.

-- Swedish referee Martin Hansson let Thierry Henry's handball goal stand against Ireland, but regretted his mistake when he realized what had happened. An Irish sports officials offered his condolences, and Hansson was picked to be among the elite referees for the World Cup in South Africa. However, he has remained on the sidelines as an alternate fourth official, while the other European officials have called games.

-- The disallowed goal by Maurice Edu of the United States was not the only bad call Koman Coulibaly made in that game. He earlier gave American Robbie Findley a yellow card for an intentional handball, even though replays clearly showed the ball had gone off Findley's face and into his hands (and leading ESPN announcer Ian Darke to call it "the stupidest decision" he had seen in some time). FIFA referees said mistakes do happen, but they did not address the call in a media setting on Monday. Coulibaly, however, will not officiate any more games, at least during the first knockout stage.

The best response, however, was by Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga. After the game, Joyce went straight to the umpires' room and watched the replay. He knew right away he had blown the call, and went looking for Galarraga. When he found him, he apologized immediately. Galarraga accepted the apology with no reservations and the next day, when Joyce worked behind the plate, the Tigers' pitcher brought out the lineup card.

Needless to say, that was the way to handle the situation. Clint Dempsey of the U.S. complained about Coulibaly allowing rough play to continue even though World Cup refs have said they would call games pretty closely. However, as a coach once told me, you don't put yourself in a position when a bad call could cost you the game. The U.S. could've played better in the first half and not stunk it up, allowing Slovenia to go 2-0 at the half and forcing them to have to come back.

You accept the human error and play the way you're supposed to play. If you play poorly and set yourself for failure, then you should accept whatever comes your way, good or bad.

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