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Bad Ref Call Hurts Credibility of All Sports Brands

By Published on .

When I was sports editor of the Daily Northwestern in 1959 our football team was riding high. After winning our first six games, Northwestern was ranked No. 2 in the country, and we were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Unfortunately, we lost the last three games and our coach, Ara Parseghian, soon after left for Notre Dame. The team descended into Mediocreville for many years.

What happened was not a travesty. We just ran out of gas. But this year's NCAA Tournament, where Northwestern appeared for the first time ever, was nothing less than highway robbery that should not go unpunished. It should, at the very least, have long-term implications for the good of sports.

Northwestern got into the playoffs by beating Michigan against all odds. After a Michigan basket to tie the score with 1.7 seconds left, Nathan Taphorn threw the inbound pass the length of the court to Dererk Pardon, who hit a layup for the win, 67-65. The Wildcats lost their last game to Purdue by four points, but they were still good enough to make the last seed in the NCAA playoffs. They finished with an overall 24-12 record, their best performance ever.

Northwestern won its first game in the playoffs against Vanderbilt, 68-66, in a game Vandy almost won coming from behind.

And then the Wildcats faced the No. 1 seed, the feared and feisty 33-1 Gonzaga. Northwestern stumbled through the first half, trailing 38-20 at halftime, with only one three-pointer. The halftime commentators thought Northwestern might as well go home.

But the Wildcats came alive in the second half, outscoring Gonzaga 46-31 in the last 18 minutes. They were on a tear when a Gonzaga defender put his arm up through the hoop to block a shot, a grievous error that went unreported by the referees. So incensed by the non-call was NU coach Chris Collins that he rushed onto the court and was hit with a technical foul.

Gonzaga made both of the free throws and instead of Northwestern cutting the lead to three, Gonzaga was back up by five. The Wildcats ultimately lost the game 79-73.

Afterwards, the NCAA issued a statement admitting that "the officials missed a rules violation when a Gonzaga defender put his arm through the rim to block a shot."

Though the three referees all missed the call, NU Coach Collins had no trouble spotting the infraction, and he took to court mimicking what the Gonzaga player had done. "If I see a guy from another team put his hand through the rim and block a shot I'm going to react to it if the play isn't called," he said. "I think all of you would. Of course, that cuts it to 3. We're all emotional. We've been coming back from 20 down."

Fox Sports writer Chris Chase blamed Collins for losing the game. "The coach is blinded by the fact that it could have been a three-point game rather than the fact that it was a five-point game... He can't square the idea that his actions were independent of the officials'. They blew it, so he blew up. Naturally, it's as if biting his lip and returning to the sideline wasn't an option…

"Chris Collins says he believes Northwestern would have had a great chance to win if the correct call had been made, leaving his team down three points with five minutes left. It's true. But at some point… the coach will realize that Northwestern would have had a great chance to win even if the correct call wasn't made. That didn't happen because Chris Collins lost his cool. Then Northwestern lost the game."

You would think that there would be an immediate remedy for such an egregious mistake. In the NBA coaches sometimes are able to convince refs that the opposing team committed a foul, and the refs go along because they don't want to appear totally unreasonable. Former Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy used to "stalk the sideline, the look on his face alternating between mild amusement and bewilderment. He flailed his arms skyward. Occasionally he smiled," the New York Times reported back in 2008. This takes the place of any sort of outwardly cordial relation between the two sides, which the NBA is trying to promote. But Collins, like most college coaches, was evidently not that good an actor—he should have been seen as helping the officials recover from their momentary lapse.

While the NBA has instant replay that can be triggered by referees, it doesn't allow coaches to challenge a ruling on a play—although the NBA's developmental D-League has authorized such challenges.

Carol Williams, who runs her own ad agency in Oakland, Calif., a Northwestern graduate about to be inducted into the AAF Advertising Hall of fame, has a very good theory on how it happened. "How could the whole watching-world see the infraction—the guy put his entire arm right through the basket—and the referees not see it? Come on. They had to see it, whether they believed it or not. It's that moment that happens to us all when you doubt what you see."

And why did they fail to see what everybody else did? Because "in their minds Northwestern wasn't supposed to win," she said.

Here's another thought: what if Collins called a timeout right after the no-call? Maybe the replay would have given the refs a chance to redeem themselves with the proper goal-tending penalty.

There's something wrong with sports if everybody in the stadium knows a horrendous (even game-changing) injustice has been perpetrated by the referees and nobody has the authority to do anything about it.

And doesn't the credibility of all sports suffer when this happens?

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