Rantings, Ravings and occasional Rational thoughts on issues and events in sports

December 1, 1998 -- NFL Officiating

And you thought the botched coin toss prior to the overtime in last Thursday's Pittsburgh-Detroit game was the final straw in a season of poor officiating? It was just the beginning! And how appropriate that one of the NFL's most embarrassing incidents occurred on national television in front of a larger than usual audience because of the Thanksgiving holiday. There's some irony in that this latest display of the NFL's ineptness in dealing with an increasingly aggravating problem would occur on a day on which the nation celebrates the turkey!

It would only be a few days later before another officiating travesty occurred in duplicate, within moments of each other, at the conclusion of the Buffalo-New England game. A very dubious call on a sideline pass ruled complete despite numerous replays showing the receiver did not come down inbounds followed a play later by an even more questionable defensive pass interference call on a 'Hail Mary' desperation pass the ultimately led to a New England victory as time expired in a very key game for both teams -- a game that might ultimately cost Buffalo a berth in the playoffs.

These are just the latest in a long, long litany of poor officiating decisions in the NFL that seem to increase geometrically in frequency each season. Calls are repeatedly made for officials to be full time and for officials to be younger. While there is indeed much merit in these suggestions adopting those measures won't significantly reduce the number of poor calls because the problem is technical in nature. Technology to be more precise.

The problem is that the NFL needs instant replay. The number of incorrect calls is probably not much different today than 15 or 20 years ago. Or 50 years ago, for that matter. The number is greater because more games are played by more teams so there will be more opportunities to focus on poor officiating. But the problem is with the introduction a couple of decades ago of instant replay. Prior to instant replay there were bad calls made but there was no way to verify them. Players, coaches, commentators and even officials themselves could only state that 'they think that is what they saw' on a given play. There was no way to rerun the play and determine for certain what had occurred.

As the instant replay technique was improved, slow motion and super slow motion added, greater resolution in the replay pictures, the addition of multiple cameras providing numerous angles, etc. it became possible to virtually definitively state what had or had not happened on any given play.

The NFL experimented with instant replay several years ago but dropped the instant replay because the delay in reviewing decisions was lengthening the time of games. Too much pressure from the television networks to get those game finished so their prime time programs could begin on time. The league caved in by dropping the instant replay which had been introduced as the result of what was shown to be an obvious error that affected the outcome of a playoff game. A playoff game! NFL players bust their butts all summer and fall, exposing their bodies to potentially lifelong injuries, only to have to their efforts be rendered somewhat meaningless by the corporate executives who take the attitude of football being just another form of programming with the results of competition being irrelevant in their world. Get the games over with on time. We don't want to risk another 'Heidi' incident (in which the final moments of a close football game between the Jets and Raiders in 1968 were not shown because the network wanted to start their presentation of the movie 'Heidi' on time).

Worse yet, the NFL evidently agrees with that philosophy and it's somewhat understandable. After all, the NFL and their owners receive millions, no make that billions, of dollars for the rights to televise their games. The NFl evidently doesn't care that it has become a joke in the minds of many fans who previously followed the sport with a passion rivalled only by followers of the NHL or European soccer (perhaps the most rabid of all sports fans). The NFL is losing their integrity because of their refusal to give the public (i.e. their CUSTOMERS!) what they want -- the proper results of games played on the field.

Again, this is not a problem of poor officiating. It's a problem of technology. The means exist whereby every play is subject to scrutiny. And mechanisms are available to make sure that what we see is indeed what we get. It's time for instant replay to again be part of the NFL experience. Let's get it right. Many of the plays previously deemed inconclusive can now be reviewed quickly and with certainty because of the advances in technology. And besides, there are already too many conference that take place on the field without instant replay. And the networks certainly wouldn't object to a 30 second timeout for another commercial.

And while we're at it, NFL, how about liberalizing rules on holding, clipping and pass interference. Perhaps as much as the number of incorrect calls on the results of plays (fumbles, inbounds catches, etc.) the public is growing increasingly less tolerant and considerably more disgusted with the number of penalties that are called. Penalties which not only reverse what are often big plays, but which slow down the pace of the game and take teams out of their rhythm.

Face it, NFL, your game has become almost impossible to watch. More fans are just tuning to highlight shows to see the three or four big plays that decided the game. If you're concerned about the length of games, do something to lessen the number of penalties. Remember, if we know the name of the referee in a game, that's a bad thing. The focus should be on the players and the game itself.

Wake up, NFL, and take some action. Otherwise, the NFL will go the way of other areas of our culture that at one time seemed as though they would thrive forever. The public is very adaptable and at some point will have had enough, get disgusted and switch to other forms of entertainment.

July 5, 1998 -- Baseball's All Star Game

Once again it's time for the midsummer Classic - Major League Baseball's All Star Game. Historically, baseball's gala event is the best of the major sports' All Star games. It's played in the middle of the season and the players who participate enjoy being a part of the festivities. Most of the players selected to participate get some playing time and the players are not asked to extend themselves and risk injury.

But it is an All Star game, however, in name only. A number of this season's All Star players are injured and are legitimately absent from the event. But many healthy deserving players won't be at Coors Field because the rules for selecting the players virtually ensure that more than a few All Stars will be absent. The National League's leading hitter, Brian Jordan, has not been named to the team. Nor have a pair of NLers having outstanding seasons -- the Cubs' Mickey Morandini and the Phillies' Doug Glanville (ironically, these two were traded for each other during the offseason and have each flourished in their new homes). In the AL Boston SS Nomar Garciaparra won't be part of the fun. Nor will the Yankees' ace David Cone.

Of course we know the reason for these and numerous other snubs is the antiquated rule that requires each team to have a player represented, deserving or not. This, in and of itself, is not a bad idea and is designed to maximize fan interest in every major league city. But with the addition of four new teams this decade, and an expansion from the 16 major league teams when the All Star game started over 60 years ago, to almost double that number, 30, today, this requirement has watered down the caliber of talent involved in the midsummer Classic.

The solution is obvious. Expand the rosters!!! What's wrong with 32-35 players being invited from each league? It's more important to have deserving players involved rather than to limit the number that can participate, especially when that limit is further compromised by the 'a player from each team' requirement. The arrogant owners likely would oppose this proposal since it would mean that more players would get incentive bonuses for being named an All Star (yes, money is always a central issue).

And let's not blame the fans. The All Star game, after all, is for the fans. And while their judgement can certainly be questioned in many instances, the fact remains that the fans vote for who they ant to see, not necessarily who's having the best season. And that's okay. Because it is the fan's game. And they should be involved.

One final note. The National League is at a disadvantage when it comes to selecting All Star rosters. They have two more teams than does the American League, thereby reducing their flexibility in naming deserving players since two of the spots must go to the 'one player per team' teams. That's something that hasn't received a great deal of attention but could be used as the impetus for simply expanding the rosters. Keep the 'at least one player per team' rule. It's good for the sport and for the fans of the otherwise unrepresented cities. But by giving an additional 4-7 players per league the chance to be an All Star would further enhance what is already a highlight of the middle part of the baseball season.

June 15, 1998 -- The NBA Champion Chicago Bulls

Okay. The Bulls have gotten their Repeat Three-peat. They are champs for the sixth time in eight seasons. As the decade of the 90's draws to a close the too does the end of an era. For the past twenty years or so such domination in the modern era of professional sports was unthinkable. Never again could anything approaching the feat of the old Boston Celtics occur. Not in the NBA especially. The talent level of basketball players has improved in geometric proportions over the past couple of decades. And with almost 30 franchises and a common draft that effectively ensures the widespread distribution of that talent makes what the Bulls have accomplished even the more remarkable.

It was only fitting that arguably the greatest player in the history of the NBA, perhaps in all of sports, Michael Jordan, should hit the game winning shot in what may have been his final game as a pro. But what went virtually unnoticed in those final few moments of the game was Chicago's decision to not call a timeout after Jordan took the ball from Karl Malone with barely 20 seconds remaining. Almost any other coach or team would have called for a timeout to set up a play that would turn a one point deficit into a lead.

And that's what makes Chicago special. Whether it be Phil Jackson's coaching, the players's natural instincts or, more likely, a combination of both, that decision quite likely won the game and the Championship for the Bulls. A timeout disrupts the natural flow of athletic instinct as well as enabling the opponent to plan and anticipate. By not giving Utah the time to design a defense Chicago was forcing Utah to use their own basketball instincts to prevent what would likely be the winning shot. And, of course, Michael drained it, getting nothing but net. The Bulls then used the timeout to design their own defense which resulted in John Stockton missing an off-balance shot in the waning seconds. If he had just gotten a few inches closer, or a better look, who knows.

But that's part of the Bulls' excellence. They don't often get as much credit as they should for their outstanding defense. But, as is the case at the championship level in all sports, it's defense that wins titles. So even if we've seen the last of the Bulls as we know them, Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Jackson, et. al., let's give them credit for the excellence they achieved for the better part of this decade. And let's note that unlike most dynasties, the Bulls were almost universally admired and liked. That, in itself, should be a lasting tribute to the six-time champion Chicago Bulls.

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