For starters, wrong paper. I know you are not "The Ethicist -- not even close -- but I was still wondering what you would think of this hypothetical. Granted that it's way too late to do anything about the officials missing the blatant pass interference against the 49ers that would have given the Giants another chance at winning last Sunday's all-important playoff game. But what if someone with the 49ers had seen the infraction (and certainly someone, maybe even the head coach, must have), wouldn't he have been obligated right then and there to make it known to the referee that the Giants should have the chance to do the play over, and maybe win the game, even though time had run out?
J. Fassel, East Rutherford, N.J.
Mr. Fassel, that is quite a stretch for you to think that, given the emphasis on winning in current culture -- sports as well as real life -- that a 49er would even remotely consider such an act. But then again, maybe you are not Pollyanna.
As we all know by now, the NFL, after the fact, has said that the game officials erred by not calling pass interference against the 49ers as the Giants missed the field goal attempt that would have won the game. A penalty was called on the Giants, but had a penalty also been called on the 49ers, as one should have been, the rules state that the game could not have ended on offsetting penalties and that the Giants should have been allowed one more play. They could have tried their field goal a second time.
Certainly there have been remarkable instances of sportsmanship. In 1940, Cornell apparently had beaten Dartmouth, 7-3. But the next day, after the game film had been processed, it was clear to both sides that Cornell had scored on a fifth down at the end of the game. When informed, the commissioner of the Eastern Collegiate Football Association said that the game was over and the result would have to stand. But Cornell did the right thing, extraordinarily so, and gave the victory back to Dartmouth. Final score: 3-0, Dartmouth. And the game became renowned as the Fifth Down Game.
This week, Ernie Accorsi, the Giants' general manager, consoled players and staff, answered questions from the media and made plans for next season. But during quiet moments, he sat in his office and ruminated on that 1940 game. The only similarity with that game and last Sunday's game is that officials are human and they can make mistakes, even major ones at the end of a game. These were different kinds of mistakes, however, losing count of the downs in the '40 game contrasted to the officials' failure Sunday to make what is known as a judgment call. There was nothing definite, like the fifth down in 1940, for the 49ers to give back.
So Accorsi has been trying to forget about it.
But, given human nature, he's been unsuccessful.
"I wish I could be like [Johnny] Unitas or [Arnold] Palmer," Accorsi said. "They had amnesia. When something went wrong, they just forgot about it and went ahead. I'll never forget about this until they give me the last rites. Ah, I won't even forget about it then."
Giants owner Wellington Mara walked into the room and, on getting the drift of Accorsi's telephone conversation, piped up in the background: "Red Friesell."
"Red Friesell was the ref in the Dartmouth-Cornell game," Accorsi explained.
Sportsmanship and sports merged with that game in 1940. But could anyone reasonably expect some 49er to come forth and plead his team's guilt to an infraction that the officials altogether missed and insist that they call a penalty on their own team?
There was little if any ethical culpability on the part of the 49ers the way the game played out. But such a case could have been made against the 49ers had, for example, the officials called pass interference, then overlooked the offsetting-penalties rule that would have prolonged the game. That would have violated NFL rules, and even though the mistake would have been to the 49ers' advantage, it would be reasonable to expect someone on their side to step forward (still, highly unlikely) even if no one else did.
Being denied the chance for victory by human error may not be the worst thing. One of the Giants' very own, the late George Young, felt strongly about keeping technology out of the game. The onetime Giants general manager, who also worked in the NFL office, never liked instant replay. "Games are played by human beings," he said, "and human beings make mistakes." In this case, the official missed an obvious call of pass interference that by NFL rules is considered not "reviewable" by the league's system of instant replay.
(The NFL attempts to legislate perfection through technology. What's "reviewable" and what isn't, how many "challenges" of a play a coach has during a game, officials on the field sticking their heads out of sight behind a curtain to try to verify the ruling they just made -- all of that is part of the NFL's insistence on trying to create perfection, something way beyond what human beings can hope to achieve living their own lives.)
Fallibility played a large part in Sunday's game. It put the Giants in their predicament in the first place, the fallibility of their defense that allowed the 49ers to overcome a 38-14 deficit. And the officials' mistake finished matters. But sports are about fallibility, and the officials, like the players, are a part of the humanity of the games.
Fallibility should be consolation for the Giants. Or any of us.