I don’t remember all of the details, but one of my favorite officiating stories involves Tim Higgins, the longtime college basketball referee who is reportedly retiring this year. It was at an NCAA Tournament game, deep into the tournament, maybe at a regional final. I don’t remember the teams or the year or the exact circumstances, but this is my recollection:
That in this enormous game, there was an altercation between players from the teams. The question was whether or not somebody took an actual swing at somebody else. By the letter of the law, the player in question did take an actual swing and should have been ejected -- which would have disqualified him from his team’s next tournament game, too. Even though it wasn’t really a punch, more a reaction and glancing than actual violence, the rules are the rules and it was a point of emphasis.
Except that Higgins chose not to eject the player because the consequences were too great. And as things calmed down, and they waited for play to resume, Higgins sidled up to one of the other officials and said something like, “We’d better check the schedule in New York for next week,” meaning the NIT. Because Higgins knew that his decision would result in him being passed over for further NCAA Tournament assignments but he did it anyway -- because it was the right thing to do, given the totality of the circumstances.
All of which is a long way of saying: when is somebody in the NFL going to do the right thing?
There was a chance on Monday night. The Packers did not have to be screwed out of that game. The referees are incompetent and the owners of the league have no conscience, but that has already been established. There still was a way to get this right.
When the referee went under the replay hood, there should have been two people in his ear -- a regular replay official (not a replacement guy) and a veteran officiating supervisor. They should have had the gumption to fix this, to ackowledge that the Packers M.D. Jennings made the game-saving interception in the end zone before the Seahawks' Golden Tate began to attempt to wrestle the ball away from him.
It is true that replay was never intended to settle these kinds of simultaneous possession disputes. But, unless I’m missing something in the rulebook, simultaneous possession is not one of the specifically prohibited uses of replay. Given that, and given that all touchdown catches are reviewed, and that one thing they’re supposed to check is that the player had possession until the play is over, it would seem permissible to have a look at this.
Maybe it would have vaguely violated replay procedures. So what? Nobody was asking them to throw a flag on the obvious pass interference committed by Tate on the play -- that would have been a bridge too far for replay, and set an untenable precedent, and everybody gets that.
But somebody needed to step into this gray area to tell this scared rabbit of a referee what to do.
One of those voices in his headphones needed to do the right thing.
The NFL looks terrible today, and it should. The owners of this business, drunk with power and arrogant because of it, chose the time and place of this labor dispute with the real referees. They could have continued to negotiate during the season but they chose a lockout instead -- and now they reap the whirlwind. The games are essentially being officiated by a guy in a black windbreaker on the sidelines wearing a headset. No one has any confidence in what is going on. Coaches are becoming abusive to the officials. The officials are becoming more hesitant, not less. And players have come emboldened in the wake of Monday night to speak their minds on the subject, mostly on Twitter.
As Saints quarterback Drew Brees tweeted, “Ironic that our league punishes those based on conduct detrimental. Whose CONDUCT is DETRIMENTAL now?”
We still don’t know what happened on Monday night -- the league has yet to issue a statement. But we do know that they cannot fix the wrong that was done. The result is in the books. The potential consequences for the Packers are obvious. There is nothing anybody can do, not now.
Except make sure that this never happens again. I would say that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has 1 week to get this settled. His league is on the verge of anarchy.
UPDATE at 12:30: The NFL issued a statement on the play. This is the guts of it. Rough translation: too bad.
"While the ball is in the air, Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. This should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. It was not called and is not reviewable in instant replay.
"When the players hit the ground in the end zone, the officials determined that both Tate and Jennings had possession of the ball. Under the rule for simultaneous catch, the ball belongs to Tate, the offensive player. The result of the play was a touchdown.
"Replay Official Howard Slavin stopped the game for an instant replay review. The aspects of the play that were reviewable included if the ball hit the ground and who had possession of the ball. In the end zone, a ruling of a simultaneous catch is reviewable. That is not the case in the field of play, only in the end zone.
"Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.
"The result of the game is final."