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Sam Donnellon: As technology pervades in sports, angst toward officiating grows

The New Orleans Saints should have met the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

If not for some awful officiating, the Vegas Knights might be playing the Boston Bruins for the right to hoist the Stanley Cup.

A particularly bad night for much-maligned umpire Angel Hernandez in late May triggered yet another discussion about employing the technology used by professional tennis to determine balls and strikes, a thought resisted by Major League Baseball officials despite the expanded use of replay to determine safe calls on the basepaths.

After several missed calls factored into their Game 1 loss to Golden State in this year’s NBA playoffs, Houston Rockets team officials presented an audit of Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals they said determined 81 instances of bad officiating, which took away 18.6 points away from their team and allowed the Warriors to advance and ultimately win another championship.

“We do not agree with their methodology,” NBA spokesperson Mike Bass responded.

Nor did NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell agree with elected officials in Louisiana, including Gov. John Bel Edwards, who suggested in a letter that the commissioner reverse the Los Angeles Rams’ NFC Championship victory over the New Orleans Saints based on a blatant miss of a pass-interference call late in the game that would have positioned the Saints to win the game in regulation – and reach the Super Bowl.

“Our rules do not permit the Commissioner to overturn the result of a game because of an officiating error, and I believe it would be wrong for me to do so,” Goodell wrote back. “I agree that it is incumbent on us to review this issue closely to determine if there are changes in our rules or procedures that would prevent a similar occurrence in the future.”

One month after that letter became public that review led to a decision to expand use of replays, allowing for calls to be made after the play is over – similar to the NBA’s determination of flagrant fouls.

Never in the history of professional sports has technology been more advanced, integrated, and implemented than it is today. From the use of analytics to the use of video, never in its history have its officials been so thoroughly trained and well compensated as they are in all four sports today.

And yet we are in a stretch of time in which the officiating of all four sports has been intensely criticized as incomplete, inaccurate and incompetent: a stretch of time when the use of video has become an integral part of all four major professional sports.

The game of inches has morphed into a game of pixels.

The NFL, despite its deep pockets, is coming off one of its most controversial seasons in history, its regular season pockmarked by bogus missed calls and bad calls, culminating not only in the controversial ending of the NFC Championship Game, but incidences in the AFC Championship Game, as well. A missed muffed-punt call and a wrongly called roughing-the passer call on the Chiefs’ Chris Jones swung momentum and arguably affected the outcome in favor of the Patriots.

Then came the NHL playoffs.

As broadcaster-turned-general-manager John Davidson used to say, “Oooooh baby.”

The Golden Knights led Game 7 of their first-round series against the San Jose Sharks, 3-0, when Cody Eakin tangled with Sharks forward Joe Pavelski along the boards with a little more than 10 minutes remaining. Bouncing off teammate Paul Stastny amid the scrum, Pavelski lost his balance, smashed head first onto the ice, and oozed blood onto the ice. Eakin was given a five-minute high-stick major penalty even though replays clearly showed his stick never made contact with Pavelski’s head or directly caused the injury.

The Sharks scored four goals during the penalty time and won the game in overtime, 5-4, advancing to play Colorado in the next round. They advanced in that round as well when a tying goal was reversed via a coaches challenge. Although he was not involved in the play, Gabriel Landeskog was technically offsides as he casually entered his bench amid a line change.

The Sharks also won Game 3 of the Western Conference final in overtime via a missed hand-pass call that directly resulted in the winning goal.

“We see all kinds of video these days,” said Colin Campbell, the former Rangers coach and now an executive vice president and director of hockey operations for the NHL. “And we see the game in high definition … with many camera views. And when you see it, you can’t understand how four officials can’t see it. Well, this game is really fast.”

The NHL replaced two of its more veteran officials amid all this. Dan O’Halloran, who leads all active refs in playoff games officiated and had officiated a conference final every year for more than a decade, was one of four officials sent home after the Game 7 miss/mess. Dan O’Rourke was among the officials eliminated after the hand-pass mess.

“I’m trying to cut these guys some slack,” Campbell said. “But I’m also trying to understand where we’re at with video review. How much do we need? And where do we go with video review?”

Good question. And one that is at the epicenter of the national perception that officiating, in general, has become worse, not better, through technology. Hockey and football have changed from grinding games to games of stretch passes and speed, speed, speed. Wary of those pixels perhaps, officials might feel forced to anticipate fouls as much as officiate them. Jones’ roughing-the-passer penalty – his hand came down softly onto Tom Brady’s shoulder pad a millisecond after the ball was released – is a prime example of the NFL’s dilemma.

There is also the elephant in the room, a beast the NHL shares as well. Both leagues have been slapped with lawsuits seeking damages for their handling of concussions. Both have altered rules and created safety measures as a response. If officials are to err, it seems reasonable to assume it will be on the side of caution.

Even if it irritates or incites fans.

Or leads to a change of jobs. There have been seven new NFL referees (white hats) over the past two seasons, the most since the AFL-NFL merger – almost 50 years ago. John Parry’s retirement this spring, after doing the Super Bowl, raised a few eyebrows. He’s in his mid-50s and in great shape, and it was the second straight season the Super Bowl referee retired after it, both he and Gene Steratore moving into call-reviewing broadcasting roles.

Better to be the hunter than the hunted.

Oddly, Major League Baseball, once at the forefront of officiating controversies, has been relatively quiet of late. Oh, there are still controversial ball-strike calls that lead to arguments and ejections. Veteran umpire Joe West is up to 151 ejections at last count, and Ron Kulpa’s April 4 home-plate work involving the Rangers and Astros was a highlight-reel jaw-dropper. But the resistance to a more technological determination of balls and strikes has thus far been resisted by both players and officials, if not fans as well.

Similarly, the NBA, despite the Rockets’ red glare on officiating, seems content with its human frailty. Calls, especially close to the basket, have been habitually missed throughout its history, and are inherently subjective. The suspense as Kyle Lowry skids across the floor – charge or a block? – is part of its very nature, and perhaps part of its entertainment value as well.

“Whenever officiating is a part of any kind of discussion postgame, it’s never a good outcome for us,” Goodell said at the Super Bowl. “We know that. Our clubs know that. Our officials know that. But we also know our officials are human. We also know that they’re officiating a game where they very quickly have to make snap decisions under difficult circumstances. And they’re not going to get it right every time.

“The game is not officiated by robots. It’s not going to be.”

For now, anyway.

Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman defends New Orleans Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis in the NFC Championship game on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019 at the Superdome in New Orleans, La. No penalty was called. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman defends New Orleans Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis in the NFC Championship game on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019 at the Superdome in New Orleans, La. No penalty was called. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

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