Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Last Night’s Real Loser: College Basketball Officiating

The photo above, taken by the Wisconsin State Journal’s Michael King, needs no explanation to anyone who watched the NCAA Division 1 Championship Game last night.  For those who didn’t, the photo clearly shows Duke’s Justise Winslow touching the basketball just before it went out of bounds in the closing minutes of last night’s game between the Badgers and the Blue Devils.

After huddling to watch the replay for an interminably and inexcusably long time, the officials decided not to overrule the (incorrect) call that was made on the play, and awarded the ball to Duke.  It probably didn’t change the outcome of the game, and this is not a sour-grapes “the refs robbed us” post.  The fat lady was singing with about five minutes left in the game, and it was because of the way the Badgers played, not because the game was so poorly officiated. There were plenty of officiating mistakes that went both ways.

Maybe the Badgers ran out of gas at the end because of the huge toll the win over Kentucky took on them; maybe it was any one of dozens of other theories given wide circulation on the sports talk shows last night and this morning.

There are more than a few out there in sports talk land who believe this particular missed call was because some guy – or guys – with a lot of money riding on the game in Vegas bought a little "insurance" from one or more of the refs.

Kind of like one of my many favorite scenes in the movie Caddyshack, when at the beginning of the big golf match toward the end of the movie Rodney Dangerfield hands a hundred-dollar-bill to the “official” supervising the match and says “keep it fair”. (You can see that famous24-second movie clip here.)

The thing is, if you were watching the game last night, you saw it just as clearly as I did. The ball was last touched by Winslow just before it went out of bounds. It took the CBS sports TV folks in the production truck only a few seconds to isolate the shot that clearly showed Winslow touching the ball. Yet the officials, watching the same stuff, claimed they didn’t see enough “evidence” to overturn the (incorrect) call made on the floor.

When tens of millions of people can clearly see what happened, via great photography (just like the Michael King photo at the top of this post), and the officials claim to not see it – well, there goes their credibility.

Instant replay is here to stay whether or not the commissioner of any sports league or the rich white guys who own the team like it or not. It’s here because it’s on TV and the fans can see it. No one questions the difficulty of making a split-second call on the baseball field (out or safe, home run or foul ball), and the sport grudgingly adapted to the reality of modern sports TV and said instant replay would help the officials get it right.  The same facts obtain in pro football officiating, where there’s a lot more latitude for officiating judgment than there is in basketball.

The officials throughout the NCAA Tournament made a number of mistakes of omission – not calling a clearly flagrant foul on the Wildcats in the Kentucky-Wisconsin game, letting a Badgers basket count even though it was put up after the shot-clock had expired, and on and on.

But the failure to overturn the call when Winslow touched the ball last was an officiating failure that every man, woman, boy, girl, and dog watching the telecast saw.

It leaves us wondering, doesn’t it?  And that's exactly what instant replay was supposed to eliminate: doubt.