Monday, November 12, 2012

Penn State football: Is something rotten with Big Ten officials?

"It looks like a touchdown," said Sean McDonough to announcing partner Chris Spielman. "I think you're absolutely right," replied Spielman. Both were correct, and both were wrong.

It was another big college football game replete with questionable calls, like most big college football games.

There was no question about this particular call, though.

Technology made it clear during the replay review: It was a touchdown. And as such Penn State would take the lead, 30-27, midway through the fourth quarter Saturday in Lincoln.

"It certainly appeared the ball broke the plane of the end zone,'' play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough said while watching the replay. "Yeah, no doubt."

"That's six points, Nittany Lions," color commentator Chris Spielman said.

Instead, after the review, the ruling on the field - a fumble by Penn State TE Matt Lehman - was upheld. Nebraska ball at the 20, and Nebraska still led, 27-23. The 'Huskers would win, 32-23.

A few knuckleheads aside, we can all agree it was a touchdown. The camera angle was perfect. The view was unblocked. The image pristine - ball in hands over goal line.

There was nothing that could be disputed. It was close, for sure, but very clear - touchdown.

So, why wasn't it ruled a touchdown?

Officials have one overriding goal: To get the call correct.

And there is simply no way anyone - in this case two trained, experienced replay officials - could see that play as anything but a touchdown.

So, either these replay officials are grossly, incomprehensibly incompetent, or some other force is at work here.

That's a logical deduction, isn't it?

Well then, ruling out the possibility of incomprehensible incompetence by those who do this exact thing professionally - and it's not like they were making a live-action, bang-bang decision, this was a replay review  - what other force could be at work?

Many have speculated bias against PSU by officials since the Sandusky scandal broke. And surely that is possible. Officials are humans, and the media presentation of Penn State relating to the scandal has been most damning, in addition to the abhorrent actions of Sandusky, the former PSU assistant football coach.

So, maybe. Maybe a few calls have been made because of conscious/subconscious bias. Certainly the personal foul call against PSU QB Matt McGloin in the Wisconsin game last season, for throwing the ball into the ground when the play was whistled dead, comes to mind. That was one of worst calls of all time.

But if calls such as that one, or the non-TD call this week vs. Nebraska actually are not being made honestly, it seems likely a larger force is at work, besides just the conscious/subconscious bias of a few officials.

It could well be coming from the top, the very top, of the Big Ten

It's a very strong assertion, but it makes sense on two essential levels. The league has the motive, and the means.

The motive: Big Ten football is a huge, money-generating operation. And Penn State still is the black sheep of the league, harming the image, perception and revenue windfall of the Big Ten.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's job isn't to be fair to everyone, to uphold justice, etc. It's to look out for the best interests of the league. And it's still in the best interests of the league for teams other than Penn State to be winning big games.

PSU is supposed to be suffering through harsh sanctions, not thriving on the football field, not yet at least. And the Lions definitely are not supposed to be taking up spots atop the Big Ten standings that instead could go to non-scandal ridden teams that can play in bowl games.

In Delany's perfect world, PSU goes 4-0 in non-conference play, and 0-8 in league play.

Penn State winning big intra-conference games - i.e. knocking off Ohio State, or Nebraska, or Wisconsin, sending them down a peg - and winning division titles, from the Big Ten perspective that's still bad for business.

Not nearly as bad as it was last autumn, post-Sandusky, when sponsors were bailing on Penn State football games (an aside: What foolish cowards, what a missed opportunity for the sponsor to make a public service announcement decrying abuse and pledging to assist in some meaningful way), or threatening to bail on them.

That's money lost for Big Ten football, money Big Ten football is counted on to generate. And bowls wanted nothing to do with child sex abuse scandal-ridden PSU.

The Big Ten offices surely are almost as weary of the national media's scandal coverage as Penn Staters.

That said, it is getting better for Penn State and Penn State football. Perception might never get all the way better, but it's better this season than the end of last, and will continue to get better.

Time passes. And Bill O'Brien's outstanding coaching helps, too.

Right now though, Penn State knocking off top teams in the league is bad for the Big Ten.

But having people question the integrity of your events is bad for business, too.

So for Delaney, there are two questions: Are there ways to "help" Penn State lose a few select games, and can it actually be done without the public thinking the fix is in, and the whole thing blowing up?

Tampering with officiating is the best way to do it - the officials directly impact the outcome of the game. One or two well-timed, critical calls, in a handful of games, can change everything. And one or two unfortunate calls every few weeks isn't enough to generate national outrage. Just Nittany outrage. And the world has grown numb to that.

It would be risky, because of leaks and so forth, so it's not something the powers-that-be would traffic in with any regularity. But Delany's been running the Big Ten for a loooooong time - 23 years to be exact. He has a lot of power, a lot of control, a lot of connections, a lot of everything.

Is there any doubt that if he wanted to try to influence the outcome of a given game, he could, and he could get away with it?

For example, is it possible the integrity of a replay review could be compromised? Is it possible a signal could be sent in from Big Brother at the Big Ten home office while the play is under review, indicating which way the call should go?

When you have a job at a big company, sometimes you have to do what the Big Boss wants you to do, right? Sometimes Big Boss reaches down and either directly guides you to do something a certain way, or they move you aside and do it themselves. Regardless of how you feel about it.

PSU been brutally victimized by bad calls in its past three big games - Wisconsin last season, and Ohio State (Brad Bars, Adrian Amos) and Nebraska this season.

Why did such bad calls happen?

It could be a stretch of really bad happenstance. Under ordinary circumstances, bad calls fall under this category. Officiating isn't easy. Bad calls are made. The vast, vast majority of officials are dedicated to trying to get calls correct all the time.

It could be, on occasion, individual biases. They are humans, prone to such things.

Or, it could be, something else. Something external, perhaps. Gamblers got to NBA ref Tim Donaghy. Or something internal, perhaps, such as the Hand of Delany.

It's possible, no?

For insight, analysis and opinions about Penn State football, check, or follow Pete Young on Twitter @AllPSUfootball.

1 comment:

  1. I don't want to believe this but I have to give it some credence after last Saturday.

    I am not a Big Ten-hater, which is rare these days among PSU fans and alumni. I wanted to be in the Big Ten before we got invited and have been thrilled to join what I consider the best all-sports conference in the U.S.

    But I can't deny that even before the Sandusky scandal, it never seemed as if we were treated as a full equal by the conference, going back to the ridiculous intentional foul called on PSU (when it was a PSU player's jersey being grabbed) that kept us from upsetting Indiana in basketball on national TV back in our very first season.

    Since then, there have been too many questionable calls in football games, especially against Michigan. Now, are we treated as the outsider even against Nebraska?

    I love being a part of the Big Ten (for the most part). I think Michigan, Ohio State, et al, is exactly who we should be playing.

    But for the first time, I sympathize with those who wish we could leave and join the ACC instead. It won't happen unless the Big Ten gives us the boot - and why would it do that, now that the worst seemingly is past?