Ron Morris

Morris: Referee vitriol needs a timeout

A FEW POINTS THAT I believe to be true following the recent spate of gaffs by SEC football officials:

1. The league has the best officials in college football, and here is a surprise, they occasionally make mistakes.

2. No official's call has ever determined the outcome of a game.

3. Questioning the integrity of an official - and essentially the game - should draw the offending coach an automatic suspension from the league.

"It's interesting to me that we will tolerate mistakes by players, coaches, by the media, by fans," says Rogers Redding, the coordinator of football officials for the SEC. "But let an official truly make a mistake, boy, that's just not acceptable."

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, Tennessee's Lane Kiffin and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen have been reprimanded by the SEC the past two weeks for their comments about officiating.

Petrino questioned the officiating during his team's loss to Florida on Oct. 17. Mullen admonished the replay official who did not overturn a questionable call in Mississippi State's game against Florida.

As for Kiffin, he was OK questioning a non-penalty call on the final play of Alabama's victory against Tennessee on Saturday.

Then Kiffin crossed the line. He questioned the integrity of the game by pointing out that Alabama was penalized once compared to eight penalties against Tennessee. The inference was that officials leaned toward Alabama in their calls.

"I'm sure we'll get one of those letters that really means nothing as Bobby got last week, but Florida and Alabama live on," Kiffin said.

That kind of talk is inflammatory and there is no place for it in college athletics. Such statements fuel the fire of the many conspiracy theorists among fans who believe officials cheat or are out to get their teams.

Before USC fans chide Kiffin for being a childish brat in his comments, remember that only a few seasons ago Steve Spurrier made a similar statement about SEC officials.

"In the SEC, I know how these guys are," Spurrier said in 2005. "They go out and have a beer with their buddies and they say, 'Man, you stuck it to them last week, you really got Spurrier and them Gamecocks, didn't you?' "

Spurrier later apologized for the comments and was reprimanded by the league. Like Kiffin now, Spurrier should have been suspended.

"It's OK to challenge and question an official's judgment, his competence, his knowledge of the rules, his mechanics," Redding said, speaking neither to Kiffin's nor Spurrier's comments. "But, boy, don't challenge the integrity of the officials because that's over the line. That's simply unacceptable. The officials are the stewards of the integrity of the game."

Officials are not out to help or hurt one team or another. They have an extremely difficult job. Redding has a formula that figures an officiating crew of seven makes between 4,500 to 5,000 decisions every game. No doubt, they miss a few calls.

On top of that, SEC officials, like in all conferences, are graded after each game. Only the best officials are retained from season to season. If a group of officials consistently misses crucial calls, they can be suspended, as happened recently to an SEC crew.

Finally, it is important to realize that no single call determines the outcome of a game. Saying an official's call in the waning minutes was responsible for a team winning or losing is much like saying the kicker's extra-point was the reason a team won a game 21-20.

More often than not, the one missed call at the end of a game is a matter of interpretation.

"Many times what is classified as a mistake is just something that the person who got the short end of the stick just didn't like," Redding said. "Partisanship shapes the reality you choose to see."

No doubt, SEC officials have had a difficult couple of weeks. In the big picture, impartial observers understand those officials do an outstanding job under trying circumstances and ensure the game is played on a level field.

So, get off their backs.

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