In the taxonomy of professional errors by sports officials, the highest level is one that requires a post-game interview with the pool reporter.
All leagues treat their officials like high priests. This is the rare instance where a single media member gets to stand in the temple doorway, shout in a few questions and report back what he or she heard. It’s a sure sign that someone has screwed up very, very badly.
Over the weekend, the pool reporter was sent to talk to the NFL’s VP of officiating, Walt Anderson, after the playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Las Vegas Raiders.
At issue was a second-quarter touchdown pass. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was scrambling toward the sidelines. A mess of receivers and defensive backs were scrambling in the end zone. As he stepped out of the bounds, Burrow threw. The pass was caught.
Right before the ball was thrown, a very audible whistle was heard. Several Raiders players appeared to slow up. No touchdown call was made. After a long conference, the score was awarded. The game eventually ended 26-19 for Cincinnati. That score was the difference.
By rule, any play in which an “erroneous” whistle is sounded must be replayed. However, whistles and when they happen do not feature in play reviews. Which makes no sense.
There was no question that one of the officials had blown a whistle, though no one was willing to say which one.
So in order to square the circle, Anderson had only one option: “[Officials] determined that they had a whistle, but that that whistle, for them on the field, was blown after the receiver caught the ball.”
What a wonderful formulation – “for them on the field.” This suggests that sound is not bound by our physical laws, but exists instead in the realm of metaphysics. The suggestion seems to be that this intuition about sound cannot be challenged. It’s the latest version of someone whipping out the old “Personally, I feel …” when they know they’re losing an argument.
Anyone with a working TV set knows Anderson is wrong. Because while broadcast technology may delay sound, I’ve yet to hear of it causing noises to time travel forward.
In any case, the officials screwed up and no one wants to talk about it. That’s the good news.
There are a lot of reasons the NFL is far-and-away the most popular sports league in North America – the urgent pace of the game, its intricacy, the pomp around it, the violence, the limited supply of games, the mortal risk undertaken by its competitors. But the one that gets talked about the least is its tendency to create and then amplify errors. No sport is more focused on the things elite performers do wrong.
You come away from the game remembering the pass that wasn’t caught, the throw that didn’t have enough on it, the block that should have been made and the play call they got wrong. Small errors are amplified because they often result in a) someone getting their head nearly cleaved off or b) losing their job.
But no one makes more and better NFL mistakes than its officials. Half the time, they don’t seem to understand the rules. Maybe because no one could. Or they are seeing things wrong. Which can happen when 22 giants and Olympic-level sprinters are running around trying frantically to kill each other.
The popular view is that this is a bad thing.
“I hate getting to the point where [officiating mistakes] are expected and you’re numb,” New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton moaned a couple of months ago. “This one this past weekend, I don’t know that I’ll ever get over it.”
Numb? Never get over it? Can we get a Kickstarter for this guy so that he doesn’t have to go through life feeling emotionally hollowed out by a borderline roughing-the-passer call?
At least Payton’s got the correct temperature of his workplace. The consensus this year – that things are bad, getting worse and most NFL officials should check to see if they qualify for any discounts available to the visually impaired.
This is the result of a poor understanding of how fandom works. People don’t want feats of strength from their athletes. If they did, watching grown men walk around carrying refrigerators over their heads would be more popular. What they want is dramatics.
Peak performance can be dramatic, but only in limited doses. Everybody tunes in for the 100-metre final at the Olympics. During the track season, you can watch the same people doing the same thing at the same level – and no one watches that. The difference is the occasion.
Now if I told you that during that same race, the guy firing the gun had a tendency to go a hair too early, or too late, and that track officials insisted he wasn’t doing anything wrong, and that the competitors would often rage on the interviews afterward, you’d be a little more inclined to tune in. You’d start picking sides and maybe commenting on it on social media. You might talk to a friend about it and urge to check out this goon show for themselves. It’s unbelievable what this idiot is doing with a starting gun.
Add in a big, thick layer of hometown animus and national rivalries and you’ve really got something there.
The officials aren’t meant to screw up, but their screw-ups amplify the dramatics. They are the real villains of the piece. Their relative anonymity makes them perfectly absorbent for harmless abuse. Were you to replace them with unerring robots, people would start to lose interest, though they probably couldn’t tell you why.
So let the Paytons of the world complain. They make all their money, in part, because they work with well-meaning people who occasionally get it wrong – just like all the rest of us.
But unlike all the rest of us, they also blame those people for their own inability to do their jobs right. If you want to win, score more points. If you can’t manage that, have the dignity to keep quiet about it.