It is a familiar scenario: Team loses a close game; coach criticizes officials; coach is fined for criticizing officials.
It happened again Saturday when Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh went on at length after his team’s double-overtime loss to Ohio State about several calls he thought were missed — including one that, had it gone the other way, would have won the game for Michigan.
Two days later, the Big Ten fined Michigan $10,000 and reprimanded Harbaugh for violating the Big Ten’s sportsmanship policy.
Harbaugh used no profanity in his postgame comments. He didn’t call out any of the officials by name. He didn’t question their integrity. He said he was “bitterly disappointed in the officiating.” He said he thought a couple of calls were “outrageous” and said he was upset because an official who flagged him for unsportsmanlike conduct after he threw his cap and game script had cited basketball rules as the reason he was penalized.
To be fair, coaches who criticize officials the way Harbaugh did get fined and reprimanded 100 times out of 100. If they use profanity or make it personal, they might be suspended.
The issue here isn’t whether the officials got it right or got it wrong Saturday. The critical spot on J.T. Barrett’s fourth-down run in the second overtime was much too close to be deemed outrageous, regardless of which way it went. Officials miss calls all the time even with the help of replay.
The issue is the lack of accountability for officials in all sports, most of all at the big-time college level.
Harbaugh was standing up for his players when he made his comments. He knew how heartbroken they were. They were literally a couple of inches away from playing for the Big Ten championship and being in inside position to compete for the national championship — not to mention ending a losing streak against their archrival in a memorable game.
Harbaugh wanted his players to know he stood behind them, that he believed they played well enough to win. He was entitled to that, as long as he didn’t cross the invisible line and get into name-calling or integrity-questioning.
Harbaugh’s gutted players were expected to answer questions from members of the media in the game’s aftermath. If a player declines to be interviewed after a tough loss — or, more likely, an overprotective sports information director hides him — he’s going to be criticized.
That’s justified. Players at Michigan and all the other big-time schools are public figures. Their education, if they want it, is paid for, and they receive countless perks for helping the university make millions of dollars.
But what about the officials? They are paid for their work, unlike the players who, as the NCAA loves to remind us, are “student-athletes.” Even though game officials work other jobs, they are professionals. And yet they are the only group on the field or court of play that is rarely asked to be accountable to the public.
An explanation from Saturday’s referee on exactly what he and his partners saw on the fourth-down play would have been helpful. So would an explanation of why Harbaugh was penalized. Maybe Harbaugh left out a part where he directed profanity at the guy? Maybe not. But it is always good to hear both sides of a story.
Some things aren’t explainable, like pass interference. You either saw it or you didn’t. That said, there’s no reason officials can’t have access to replays in their locker room after the game. Maybe, at the very least, they admit a mistake.
Doing that is actually beneficial to officials in any sport. Remember the Jim Joyce-Armando Galarraga baseball game in 2010? Joyce missed a call at first base on what would have been the last out of a perfect game thrown by Galarraga. When Joyce saw the play on replay afterward, he was horrified. He went to the Detroit Tigers’ clubhouse to personally apologize to Galarraga and then stood up in front of all media members present and tearfully admitted his mistake. The next day, when the umpires walked to home plate in Detroit, with Galarraga waiting there to hand him his team’s lineup card, Joyce got a standing ovation for being a stand-up guy.
The NCAA will counter that a pool reporter system exists in both football and basketball. The problem is that it isn’t a media member who decides whether access to the officials is needed; it is College Football Playoff officials in football and NCAA committee members in basketball.
Several years ago, I was the pool reporter at an NCAA men’s basketball regional final between Syracuse and Ohio State. When Jim Boeheim was given a technical foul by veteran referee Tom O’Neill in the first half, everyone wanted an explanation ASAP — especially because everyone was dealing with a Saturday night deadline.
I found O’Neill at halftime and asked for an explanation. He willingly provided it, saying Boeheim had been “all over me” and, after he had warned Boeheim to stop, Boeheim gestured at him — O’Neill demonstrated to me — to indicate he was still upset. (It was not, for the record, a profane gesture.) I typed up his comments, gave them to the Syracuse reporters instantly and sent them to the NCAA reps on hand to distribute to everyone else.
After the game I was told by Ron Wellman, then the vice chairman of the NCAA basketball committee, that I twice had violated protocol, first by talking to O’Neill without a CBS/TBS rep present — that was part of the then-new TV deal — and second by talking to O’Neill directly instead of lead official John Higgins. “We won’t distribute O’Neill’s quote,” Wellman told me. “You have to come and talk to Higgins.”
And so Lesley Visser, representing TV, and I were taken to the officials’ locker room even though CBS was off the air and I was on deadline, where Higgins said, “The technical was for verbal abuse.”
“That’s not what Tommy said,” I replied. (O’Neill had been hidden from us at that point.)
Higgins gave me a look. “The technical was for verbal abuse.”
“Can you tell me specifically what was said?” I asked.
“No,” Higgins answered. “I don’t know exactly what was said.”
Which was why O’Neill should have been answering the question — which he already had — in the first place.
I used O’Neill’s accurate quote, as did most reporters.
The point is this: O’Neill’s explanation made sense and was no big deal. Talking to the Michigan-Ohio State officials Saturday might have made Harbaugh’s rant seem unreasonable. There are two sides to every story.
Most officials I know are happy to tell their side. They should be given that chance more often.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.