In March of 2012, midway through the first half of the NCAA basketball tournament’s Eastern Regional final, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was hit with a technical foul by veteran referee Tom O’Neill. Perhaps sensing that his team was in trouble that night while playing Ohio State with a trip to the Final Four at stake, Boeheim had been carping at the officials almost from the opening tip and O’Neill decided he’d had enough and teed Boeheim up.
As it happened, I was the U.S. Basketball Writers pool reporter that night in the TD Gardens in Boston–meaning that if something occurred that required talking to the officials, it was my job to do so. The NCAA has strict rules about allowing the pool reporter access to the officials. You can’t just say, ‘I’d like to ask about the block-charge call at the end of the game.’ It has to involve a rules interpretation; something that occurred that was confusing to those watching–and even then, there’s no guarantee the request will be granted–or the reasoning behind a technical foul.
The game had tipped off after 7 o’clock on a Saturday night, which meant that every print reporter in the building was facing some sort of tight deadline. As soon as Boeheim got nailed, the reporters from Syracuse were at my seat to make sure I knew they’d want an explanation since a Boeheim technical in Syracuse is only slightly more important than a Presidential address in Washington.
Understanding all that, I got O’Neill’s attention at halftime while he was waiting for the clock to wind down to start the second half. I know a lot of officials and get along with most of them quite well. O’Neill certainly falls into that category. And so, when he walked over to say hello, I explained I was the pool reporter that night and needed to know why he had tee Boeheim up.
Tommy shrugged and said–going from memory here so I may not be 100 percent accurate but this is the jist of it: “He’d been up since the beginning and I told him enough. He gave me one of these (O’Neill put his hands over his head and brought them down with his palms down in an ‘aah, the heck with you,’ kind of way) and I said, that’s it and gave him the tech.”
I thanked him and went right to the Syracuse guys and read them the quote, since I knew it was important to them. Then I returned to my seat, typed up the quote and sent it to the local media coordinator to distribute to everyone else. It never occurred to me that I’d done anything wrong.
But I had–in more ways than one.
When the game ended–Ohio State won–I headed for the interview room, hoping to grab a couple of fast quotes for my column. There would be no time to go to the locker rooms (which I prefer) because of deadline and because the NCAA consistently breaks its own rules on the so-called postgame, ‘cooling off,’ periods.
I was standing in the back of the room when Ron Wellman, Wake Forest’s longtime athletic director, tapped me on the shoulder. Wellman was on the basketball committee.
“We’ve got a problem,” Wellman said.
“A problem?” I repeated–puzzled.
Wellman nodded. “You spoke to Tom O’Neill during the game and you did it without a CBS representative present.”
“That’s against our rules. The pool reporter is only supposed to speak to the lead official and only after the game and only with someone from CBS in the room.”
Wow–I had struck out–three rules, three violations. I was a very bad boy. I also didn’t really care. I’d done what I had to do for my colleagues and if the NCAA was upset with me, that just meant it was a day that ended in Y.
“So, fine Ron, I apologize.”
Wellman shook his head. “You don’t understand. We aren’t going to distribute the quote you sent to the coordinator. You have to come talk to John Higgins (the lead official) with Lesley Visser (from CBS) and then use his quote.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Dumb question. NCAA committee members don’t kid.
The fact that I was on deadline trying to do the job I’m paid to do didn’t bother Wellman. The fact that O’Neill had explained the technical perfectly didn’t matter either. The RULES mattered.
So, because I had volunteered as the pool reporter and couldn’t just blow it off no matter how dumb the NCAA rules were, I trudged to the officials locker room with Wellman. Lesley, an old friend, was there. She was rolling her eyes. CBS was OFF THE AIR but there she was following the rules. We were ushered inside. O’Neill–who had no doubt been admonished for (gasp!) talking to me–was nowhere in sight. Higgins said Boeheim had been teed up for, “bench decorum,”–no kidding. I turned to leave.
“We need you to type this up,” Wellman said.
“Have CBS do it,” I replied. I was done now.
John Adams, then the NCAA officiating supervisor said, “John’s on deadline, Ron. I’ll take care of it.”
Not surprisingly, the NCAA fired Adams three years later. He was too good a guy to work for them.
The point of this long-winded story is this: officials in EVERY sport are over-protected. Why should a player or coach who has cost his team a game have to answer questions but officials only do it under certain circumstances, with a supervisor hovering to make sure a real Q and A can’t take place?
On Saturday night, one of the worst officiating debacles EVER took place on the last play of the Duke-Miami game. Forget the missed block in the back; the flag picked up on a different block; the Miami player on the field. All that matters is this: one of the Miami players involved in the eight-lateral touchdown had his knee CLEARLY down.
Okay, the officials on the field missed it. That’s what replay is for, right? It will get fixed that way.
Except when the replay official–in this case someone named Andrew Panucci–is incompetent. Somehow, Panucci took nine minutes–NINE MINUTES–to look at the play and still got it wrong. Was Panucci or the game referee available to the media postgame? No. That left Duke Coach David Cutcliffe to say he had no idea what had happened because no one even explained it to HIM.
A day later, the ACC suspended all 10 game officials–eight on the field; two in the press box–for two weeks and admitted they had totally screwed up the final play. Commissioner John Swofford came out with some silly quote about how important good officiating is to the ACC. For the record: ACC football officiating has been awful since I was an undergraduate 100 years ago. The only time I ever saw a WINNING coach chase officials off the field in my life was in a game at Duke (yup, same place) when Navy Coach Paul Johnson sprinted after them to scream even though his team had overcome their god-awful work to win the game.
Swofford SHOULD have fired Panucci on the spot. Clearly, he’s not competent. And, he SHOULD have reversed the outcome of the game. PLEASE do not give me this, ‘the rules say once the officials leave the field the game is over,’ garbage. The point is to do justice. All Swofford had to do was say: ‘this is a unique and extraordinary circumstance because the game was, in fact over, if the officials had gotten the call right. Justice is more important than citing a rule book.’
Let the NCAA–or Miami–try to reverse that and watch them get buried by public sentiment. For once, Swofford would actually have done something to earn his salary besides looking good in a suit.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig had a similar opportunity in 2010 when umpire Jim Joyce botched the last call of what would have been a perfect game for Armando Galarraga. Since it was the 27th out, Selig could have simply said: ‘the game ended with that play.’
Selig said he couldn’t do it–because it would set precedent. First, what is so wrong with setting precedent? Second, the precedent existed, dating to the 1983 ‘pine tar,’ game when George Brett hit a two-run home run for the Kansas City Royals with two outs in the ninth inning and the Royals trailing the Yankees, 4-3. The Yankees claimed that Brett’s bat had too much pine tar on it–according to the rules–and Brett was called out by the umpires. Thus, the game ended, 4-3.
Everyone left the field–just as at Duke Saturday night. American League president Lee McPhail reviewed the incident and restored the Brett home run. The game was picked up a month later with the Royals up 5-4 in the ninth and they won the game. There’s your precedent–in baseball AND in other sports–if you need it.
At least Jim Joyce was man enough to speak to the media after his gaffe–admitting his mistake. He even went into the Tigers clubhouse to apologize to Galarraga.
Of course no one has heard a word from Panucci–and we won’t. He’ll be ‘protected,’ by the ACC and–amazingly–will work again.
This is the larger problem: In all sports, officials aren’t held accountable the way coaches and athletes are held accountable. No one is saying their locker room should be open to all media but if the assigned pool reporter requests access postgame, he should get it–no questions asked. Like players and coaches, officials always have the option to NOT answer a question. The irony is, in most cases–as with O’Neill in Boston–they look BETTER by telling their side, even when they get a call wrong. Joyce became a hero for manning up after he blew the call in Detroit.
I’m as tired of blown calls as everyone else. I’m more tired of officials being allowed to hide behind rules made up by people who care only about their image. Of course they all miss the point: the minute you admit you’re wrong and you’re sorry, everyone starts to forgive you.
And, when a mistake can be corrected REGARDLESS OF WHAT SOME RULE BOOK SAYS–correct it. Sadly, that would take guts, something sorely lacking in those who run sports–ESPECIALLY at the college level.