Saturday, October 24, 2009
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Refs suspended for bad calls -- what about Slive?

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[October 24, 2009]  MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) -- It won't be long before SEC commissioner Mike Slive regrets his decision to suspend an entire officiating crew for three glaringly bad calls in last weekend's Arkansas-Florida game, after an even worse one in Georgia-LSU earlier this month.

He might have cooled down the message boards and gotten the conspiracy theorists off his back for a few days. But as his counterparts running college and pro leagues can attest, it won't make the problem go away.

Unless Slive has proof that those calls were anything but honest mistakes - that one or more refs in that crew are crooked, easily distracted or downright incompetent - all he's done is give critics more ammunition the next time it happens.

And what about the next time a different ref or crew does the same? Suspend them, too? If so, how many refs will be eligible to work by the time the conference games roll around in December?

It's a fact of life that officials everywhere, in games big and small, blow calls. Set up a video camera over your shoulder and have the feed shown on a giant TV screen. Then have your supervisor and co-workers watch it live, plus as many replay segments as they want, and see how your review the next day goes.

What all the video footage the leagues endlessly pore over proves is that their refs do their jobs consistently better than the rest of us, players and coaches included. As NBA commissioner David Stern responded wearily last October to yet another question about his refs, if skeptics only knew how frequently they "monitored, metricized, rated, reviewed and developed, you get a completely different picture than the one that I think many fans have."

Yet even with a state-of-the-art program, NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira acknowledged it comes down to the law of averages.

There are about 1,500 plays in a week's worth of games and experts agree between four and five dicey calls in each of the 16 games. While instant replay has cut into that total, Pereira knows his crew is no more likely to be perfect than the players they're supposed to be watching. What causes him and the NFL sleepless nights is when those blown calls happen in clusters - a notable 2002 win by Green Bay over Minnesota included nine, eight in the final quarter - or at the end of the game.

"The levels of accountability are worlds apart," Pereira said in an interview not long ago. "You rarely see the blame for a loss get hung on one player because of one play. But let a ref blow a call late in a game and that's the only thing anybody wants to talk about."

The leagues brought this problem on themselves, mostly by feeding the myth that instant replay will make it possible to get every call right. But so long as humans make the first call and the final one - no matter how many safeguards are sandwiched in between - it's still possible to get it wrong.

We've railed against instant replay for years. It intimidates refs, makes the games drag on and, depending on the camera angle, might actually distort what happened. But it isn't going away anytime soon, so here's a more practical solution.

The reason the blown calls in the Arkansas-Florida game kicked up such a fuss is not just that they were clustered late in the game, but because there's a perception that the SEC's top-tier teams benefit from them more often than not. Arkansas had a shot to upset the nation's No. 1 team, and that's all the Gator-haters needed to fashion a conspiracy.

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According to their theory, the league wants to ensure it has at least one representative in the national championship game each season to bring back a share of the BCS loot, and Florida is the anointed team this season. Never mind how silly it would be for anyone at the SEC office to communicate that desire to league officials, and put the reputation of a billion-dollar enterprise at risk.

That's what made Slive's knee-jerk reaction regrettable. More than a few conferences have suspended officials before, but almost always kept it private. By sending his officials home for two weeks, Slive will give them plenty of time to catch up on the hate mail flooding their inboxes and return calls from crazed fans. But by announcing it, he's practically encouraging all the loons.

Even while agreeing with the suspensions, Florida coach Urban Meyer said making them public was going too far.

"Why would you do that?" he said after practice Thursday. "I don't understand that part."

Besides, what does Slive think those officials will gain by taking two weeks off? Are they supposed to run around the house in uniform, throwing tissues at the upholstered furniture? Do eye exercises? Get hearing aids?

Crew chief Marc Curles has already acknowledged he made mistakes, and promised to learn from them. Here's hoping that Slive resists the temptation to sit down or make an example of the next ref who makes a mistake.

Human nature being what it is, at least he won't have to wait long for the next opportunity to come along.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)

[Associated Press; By JIM LITKE]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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