Integrity Matters
January 4, 2006

Keep college football game in perspective

Question: (E-221)

Dear Jim:

During recent college bowl games, several referees made poor calls. For example, those wearing striped shirts announced an "off side" against the University of Iowa Hawkeyes that stopped their valiant efforts to tie or win the game against Florida's Gators. How can there be integrity in outcomes when errors by referees are allowed to stand?


Regarding calls that cost a team victory, consider the wisdom of a major college coach. He said, after a very disappointing loss in the last few seconds of a game because of a controversial call: "We did not play at a high enough level to absorb surprises or disappointments."

By implication, this mature and thoughtful coach was suggesting that had he and his fellow coaches done a more effective job and had his team played a better game, one or two or even three contested calls would not have changed the outcome of the game. He did not blame the referees. He accepted the outcome, handling the disappointment appropriately. Regarding the referee's "blown" call you referenced during the Iowa-Florida game, has the situation been addressed with integrity? Did those in charge behave responsibly?

Until fairly recently, college football appeared to be a game, providing a Saturday afternoon diversion for students, faculty and alumni. Today, intercollegiate sports, especially football and basketball, are big business with mission statements, stakeholders and gigantic cash paydays. University sports programs expecting to remain competitive use superb brand management, marketing expertise, multimillion-dollar contracts for coaches and media-savvy venues to "showcase" talent for the professional ranks. The gridiron classics are today about television revenues, national rankings and recruiting. With cameras now validating and challenging decisions by referees, will it be long before playing fields and uniforms are wired with electronics to monitor play on the field? Are we taking sports games and trying to make them, especially football, into a flesh-and-blood violent video game, complete with a rewind mechanism, called replay? Humans, including referees, make mistakes.

The bowl season accounts for a month of contests between teams, too many of which lack convincing won-loss records.

These games appear to be advertising-driven television time-fillers, tailored to the needs of couch potatoes with purchasing power. Loyal alumni are encouraged to buy tickets, providing a backdrop of fan-noise during student-athlete auditions for professional scouts. How many legitimate bowls can there be with a 120 big-school programs?

Not as many as have mutated, which may account for some of the poorer calls on the field. What kinds of incredible pressures are being placed on those who coach, play and referee? Is it really about blown calls or guaranteed revenue generation? This question is not about imperfect referees as much as it is about seeing sports in the right proportion.

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