Monday, September 14, 2009

A Weekend of Questionable Officiating and Rules Ambiguity

Philadelphia Eagles v Carolina Panthers
US Open Day 13

This weekend provided some questionable officiating that should provoke a closer examination of some rules ambiguity. Saturday night, a US Open semi-final match between the two women's favorites ended in controversy. On Sunday, the same end zone location in the Eagles-Panthers game highlighted some paradox in NFL officiating.

Serena Williams, who has been playing great tennis and seemingly headed towards the #1 ranking in the world, was defeated by Kim Clijsters when she lost a point to a foot fault violation and then another for protesting with the line judge. It was a hard fought match with Williams, trying to hang on to force a third set, serving at 5-6, 15-30. After missing her first serve, play was halted by a line judge foot fault call as her second serve landed safely in the service box. When Williams angrily admonished the line judge, waving her racquet at her and suggesting that she should shove the ball down her throat, the chair umpire awarded a penalty point to Clijsters, ending the match.

Serena was surely wrong in the way she handled the situation and her verbal assault was totally inappropriate. What has gotten somewhat lost, though, is that the call probably should not have occurred in the first place, especially at such a crucial time in the match. This was obviously not lost on Williams as it evoked her violent response.

The only replay that CBS could come up with did not indicate a violation. This does not suggest that the tip of Williams' toe could not have touched the line, but it seems totally unnecessary to make a very questionable call such as that at such a big moment in the match. It falls into the same category that football and basketball officials use when they "let the players play" during close finishes, rather than make subjective calls that influence the outcome.

The situation also spurred discussion about changing the rules to enable relying on the same replay system used to challenge line calls to review foot fault violations. This evokes an even bigger question in my mind. Should that "Hawk Eye" technology be used at all? It makes for a nice cartoon animation with a definitive "in or out" result, but there has been indication that it may only be 99% accurate. An analogous situation in baseball would be reversing a home run and awarding an out when an animation shows a ball landing in the glove of a leaping outfielder, even though a real person is holding the actual ball five rows up in the bleachers.

In the Eagles game yesterday, the Panthers were not assessed a penalty when a late hit on Donovan McNabb lying in the end zone resulted in a fractured rib. Those same officials, though, assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty an hour earlier when the Eagles formed a circle to celebrate Brent Celek's touchdown catch.

It would surely seem that the NFL has its priorities wrong and referees miss the forrest for the trees. They are so fixated on squelching any exuberance over big plays that they overlook protecting players, especially a marquee quarterback. Of course, that depends on the stadium, team or player. This was highlighted on the Sunday night game as Packer players are allowed to jump into the stands and celebrate in a protracted fashion to raucous music with the home town fans.

Both these situations seem highly ambiguous. The simple fix in the NFL would be to allow all players to exhibit their natural excitement after a score and to ask referees to turn their focus from policing socks and judging excessive giddiness in favor of protecting the players from getting needlessly injured. In tennis, taking a hard look at the review system and providing guidance to the line judges would be warranted. Serena crossed over the line in her reaction, but it was call that really did not need to made in the first place.

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