One Blow Call in One Game – And What it Means to a Conference and a Sport

There is frankly a lot to be said about WVU’s loss to 4th ranked Syracuse on Saturday afternoon.  Much of that could be about the game, where Syracuse demonstrated as much about it’s newfound mortality with Fab Melo on the bench as WVU did it’s ability to compete with anyone – but not necessarily BEAT anyone.  The Orange were mauled on the boards (36 to 20 overall, 15 to 5 offensive) and the Mountaineers failed to execute down the stretch with uneven efforts from 2/3rds of their upperclassmen, demonstrating once again that without the consistant contributions of Deniz Kilicli and Truck Bryant, this is a very good but not-ready-for-prime-time team that is unable to beat high level opponants. But that’s probably not what you’ve spent the time since that game mulling over. You probably ignored that WVU was unable to get a very good shot out of a set play in their next-to-final possession.  You may have even forgotten that center Kilicli was an abysmal 2 for 10* from the field, an unforgivable 25% for a guy who takes shots as close as he does to the goal.  I’m certain that you ignored WVU gave away several possessions with the chance to take or extend a lead in the second half because of nothing more than poor execution and shoddy ball handling/passing.  Fact of the matter is WVU played far from great on the road against the shorthanded 4th ranked team in the country that was shooting horribly from 3 point range and couldn’t finish the deal.  Couldn’t deliver the death blow.  Raised real questions as to how realistic some of the heady expectations tossed out in the past few days have been (this idiot suggested they could win the conference!).  They failed to lock down a winnable game. But you don’t want to talk about that and for now, neither do I. So let’s get to the big zebra in the middle of the room. That was as horrible a missed call as you’ll ever see, at any level, in any sport.  It was a blatant goaltend and it’s inexcusable that someone paid to render a service could fail so miserably at his job.  Personally I think the entire crew should face suspension and a serious look at how many games of any importance they’re allowed to call in the future.  In contests that mean so much to so many, things like this should simply not be allowed to happen.  The mistake raised a variety of questions, both at the official, conference and sport level, so I’m going to address those one by one, starting at indivisual referees and moving out.  Let’s go. The Refs. Personally I’m a big fan of WVU Daily Mail beat guy Mike Casazza, and this afternoon he demonstrated why he is among the best at his craft with the artful insertion of some very pertinant information on the crew working the WVU game – namely the two men closest to the contreversial play at the end.  This is from his great recap of the game:
Gene Steratore — who has worked 17 college basketball and two NFL games this month — was the official under the basket while Karl Hess — working his 21st game in 28 days — was on the left sideline near the play. Neither hinted they might call goaltending, though the rule says the basket counts once the ball hits the backboard above the rim.
The point Mike is making here is one often lost on college basketball fans (myself included) who curse the TV screen and find themselves at a loss for how someone can fail to see something so obvious when a call is blown.  Aside from the obvious fact that basketball is an insanely fast game played by amazingly quick and gifted athletes, folks often forget how HARD these officials are asked to work.  Schedules like those outlined above – and sometimes worse – are far from the exception in the college game.  In fact, they’re the norm. Here is the reality of ref life, taken from a fantastic referee profile by Mark Fainaru-Wada that ran on ESPN.com around a year and a half ago:
And so for Ford Branch, pharmaceutical salesman by day, college basketball official by night, his work as a referee provides him no guarantees. There are no benefits. There is no pension. There is no health plan. The average Division I ref might make $50,000 a year, if he can officiate 40 to 60 games a season, but that’s before taxes — and that earning power goes away the minute a guy is injured or sick or can’t work for whatever reason. “If I go down one night, we would be in trouble,” Branch, who is married with two young children, said of the idea of working full-time as a referee. “I don’t really want to have that pressure.
You read that right.  NCAA referees are part time contract employees, compensated no differently than the paper boy (do they even have those anymore?) or a door to door salesman.  You play for pay and if you’re unable to show up for whatever reason than neither does that (humble) paycheck.  So look again at the schedules outlined for the WVU/Syracuse crew and then consider that they are doing this as a PART TIME gig.  Five times a week they run up and down a floor for 2 to 2 1/2 hours chasing guys with longer legs and quicker reflexes, and all this after they’ve done whatever was required that day of their primary employment.  It is amazing to me that people who have perhaps more influence on something as massively important as a big-time college basketball game (please spare me the ‘it’s just a game’ crap – look at the money made by coaches, what’s generated by programs and what’s bet in Vegas and try to tell me these games aren’t massively important) can be handled by the NCAA and conferences responsible in such a disinterested manner.  There is not a single reason in the world that the same NCAA that inked a massive Tournament TV deal in 2010 cannot hire referees as full-time paid employees with benifits who can spend their days traveling and improving their craft.  And being compensated as such, they could be held accountable in brief post-game press conferences that game them a forum to defend themselves and explain their actions.  It would be better for the referees and more importantly the game. So next time you cuss a zebra for missing a call that cost you a game, remember that there’s a very good chance he or she is exhausted and while they may have failed in that moment, the entity you really need to direct your ire at is the one that put them there in the first place, pocketing millions in gate receipts with one hand and paying a pittance to the part time employees they entrusted the event’s care to with the other.  And for those geniuses who are always suggesting illicit financial dealings between the evil refs and the opposing team, I’m sure you’re surprised to find out how cheaply you could buy your own.  More on that shortly….. The Conference: To call this a period of strained relations between West Virginia University and the Big East Conference would be about as massive an understatement as one could make.  Finding themselves in the unique position of competing within a conference they are scheduled to leave while engaged in a lawsuit against the very entity that governs much of this competition, it was to be expected that WVU fans would be hyper-sensitive to perceived bias against them by officials paid by the Big East.  That hyper-sensitivity was irritated when calls in highly important late season football games that would decide the winner of the conference’s BCS spot seemed to inexplicably go against the Mountaineers.  Things were so bad quarterback Geno Smith couldn’t bite his tounge after the game and was reprimanded by his athletic director.  Bruce Irvin famously tweeted “The refs must hate us.”  It was an issue.  There was no reason to think it would go away. Suspicions of bias were only given fuel when conference awards were announced at the conclusion of the football regular season.  Stedman Bailey was inexplicably left off the first team all conference squad (although Tavon Austin was given the 1st team nod) and in a puzzling decision WVU QB Geno Smith was snubbed for Offensive Player of the Year in favor of Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead (who had the lowest yardage total of any running back to win the honor previously).  Here I’ll turn it over to Will Gregory of www.thesignalcaller.com who did a very well-rounded analysis of Smith’s season as it compared to past conference POY winners:
I looked at the stats of the 14 quarterbacks that have won Offensive Player of the Year in the Big East Conference.  Of the six major passing categories (attempts, completions, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, and interceptions), GenoSmith had a higher total than any of the fourteen in three of the categories (attempts, completions, yards), and was second highest in touchdown passes behind Ken Dorsey’s 28 in 2002.  Smith’s 65.0% completion percentage was the fourth best of the 14, but is more impressive considering he accomplished that with 81 more attempts than Gino Torretta’s 402 in 1992.  When Brian Brohm won the conference award in 2005, he had a 68.8% completion percentage on 301 attempts, which still pale in comparison to Smiths 483.  Lastly, only GinoTorretta and Glenn Foley won the award and finished first in 2 of the six passing categories at the time of their winning.  Simply put, Geno Smith had a better season than any of the previous quarterbacks that were named Big East Offensive Player of the Year.
  So the issue was clearly on the radar. Before conference play began, I remember an email I sent to some buddies saying something along the lines of “if we start getting screwed in basketball, we’ll know something’s up.”  Then the UConn game happened. Then today in Syracuse happened.  It’s enough to make you wonder and for me enough to demonstrate that SOMETHING is indeed up.  But here’s where my opinion probably differs with that of many.  I don’t by any means think that this bias stems from a high-level directive crafted within the murky confines of the proverbial smoke-filled room.  I don’t think even think there’s an unwritten rule among those working conference games that “screw WVU” is the oder of the day.  What I do think we’re seeing is the natural result of some subconscious understandings that referees have of the current situation as it relates to the conference and the West Virginia athletic department. These officials are not robots, they are human.  As we discussed above, they seem to be humans who deal with an above-average level of stress.  They are also not immune to what they know is going on around them.  It’s a small world and I’m sure their world is smaller than most.  They know what the situation is and what outcomes would be benificial to the conference that fills their game-by-game contracts.  I think what we are seeing is nothing more than the result of a subconscious desire to make their “boss” – namely that Big East Conference who’s name appears at the bottom of their paychecks – happy.  It’s not a conspiracy, it’s not a plot – it’s simply what happens when very clear battle lines are drawn (namely WVU vs. the Big East) and humans given the impossible task to remain truely objective.  Do I like it, no.  Do I think a conference that can barely keep itself together could pull off a secret plot against a fleeing member – hell no. Just don’t expect any calls in the Big East Tournament with John Marinatto in attendance. The Sport: In April of 2010, the NCAA signed a contract for broadcast rights to the NCAA College Basketball Tournament that pays $10.8 billion dollar over 14 years – roughly $740 million a year.  This represents upwards of 90% of the money generated annually by the NCAA.  Additionally conferences generate billions through their individual television contracts, most of that tied to football.  Bowls generate millions for their sponsors as well as host cities and broadcasters.  College sports are big money.  Really, really, really, really big money. So why do those who run them continue to pretend they are the same club sports of a bygone generation?  From part-time referees to an arcane bowl system, the infrastructure of college athletics is rooted in a time that no longer exists, a time when the outcomes of games had a regional importance but little else.  When the results of competition were given no more importance than would be expected the undertakings of young men and women not quite removed from adolesence. That time is gone. Games are important.  Games matter.  From the fans and alumni who pay untold hundreds (thousands) to sit in the stands to television executives who schedule their programming calender around what has become one of the few events to still consistently capture a live audience, these games matter.  Draping them with the superficial trappings of simple diversionary competition like unpaid participants and part-time officiating is laughable at best and criminally irresponsible at worst. I joked earlier in this post about how cheaply an official could seemingly be bought, but in the not-to-distant future that could be no laughing matter.  Remember Tim Donaghy?  He was able to affect competition within the fixed confines of an NBA that had a finite number of teams, small number of officials and millions of eyes at every level.  So if something like that could happen in the penthouse of professional sports, what would can keep it out of the vast basement that is the ostensible amateurism of the NCAA? By failing to take itself seriously and acknowledge the billions tied to it’s well-being, those who govern NCAA athletics put at risk the deep investment of their financial partners, the fans who foot the bill and the athletes we all pay to watch.  Money is like water, it always finds a way in (or out) and in a system like that which governs the financial bohemoth that is intercollegiant athletics you have an infinity of opportunities for the leaks to turn into torrents and rend that thin fabric asunder.  The day is coming when the low-rent infrastructure of NCAA competition will be exploited in the interest of the high-dollar reality it chooses to ignore.  It would be a sad thing indeed if this wonderful universe of college athletics that we all know, love, live and die for were ruined because of nothing more than a stubborn refusal to accept the world as it is. It’s time for the NCAA to grow up.    

One Response to “One Blow Call in One Game – And What it Means to a Conference and a Sport”

  1. Excellent analysis Brandon. I don’t know if there is a plot against WVU, but it sure as heck feels like it. We were screwed constantly in football, and now there are at least 3 huge basketball games this year where the officiating had a direct impact on the result of the game. I cannot wait to get out of the Big East. It is just getting unbearable. It took all I had not to break something Saturday.

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