In a great season for sports, with football championships on the line and basketball ramping up, it’s a great time for hot takes. Here are three lines of sports thought I despise:
“A bad call by the officials didn’t cost the team the game; there were any number of things the team could have done better.”
Officials do the best they can. Whether we believe it, those who officiate in NCAA Division I football and the pros are the best in their field. But as much as I respect the work, there are absolutely times when egregious official error costs a team the game, and in the instances where that can be corrected, I think they should be.
Some officiating snafus are fatal to an outcome, and that’s just the way it is. We saw an instance in the Division 5 state-title football game in Wisconsin where a play was ruled a fumble when it was an incomplete pass, and the opposing team turned that into the winning points. There’s not much that can be done about that; you can’t replay the final moments of a title game, especially in a venue without replay availabile for officials.
Then you have what happened earlier this year to Oklahoma State, when an untimed down was incorrectly awarded to Central Michigan, which turned the opportunity into a crazy Hail Mary and victory. Everyone agrees it was a mistake. Sure, you can point out the 50 different reasons why Oklahoma State, a program that would be in the college football playoff conversation were it not for this loss, shouldn’t have been one play from a loss anyway. But especially in high-level athletics, there seems to be this expectation that players should play flawlessly, regardless of the will of the opponent. In tense battles with so much on the line, the opponent is going to force some mistakes and throw some surprises at the other guy. The bottom line is, Oklahoma State successfully won that game, and an official’s mistake kept the game from ending. It’s worse than the infamous Fail Mary play between Green Bay and Seattle because it actually was a misapplication of the rule book.
Few officiating mistakes so concretely determine the outcome. Take the Florida Gulf Coast-Michigan State basketball game on Nov. 20. A more nuanced mistake in which the clock started early, and the horn erroneously sounded as an FGCU player took what could have been a game-winning shot (that he left short, presumably because he was distracted in mid-release by a horn that shouldn’t have been there). The outcome still hinges on a shot going in; it’s quite possible MSU wins anyway. But FGCU fought its way to within a basket of a top hoops program; it should be rewarded with a fair shot to win. It was denied that opportunity by poor officiating (the official had control of the clock).
Oklahoma State, in the eyes of the college football playoff committee, should not be thought of as a two-loss team; it should be thought of as a one-loss team. Should FGCU find itself in a situation where it needs an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, this game should be considered as something between a win and a loss against Michigan State. The subjective constructs can somewhat amend the officiating wrongs.
I feel the same about the Ohio State-Michigan outcome. It’s not clear whether the right call was made on a fourth-down stop that would have given Michigan the victory, but the officials also didn’t spend much time ensuring it was right, and that should at least be considered in the playoff creation, perhaps to the detriment to Wisconsin (if the Badgers win the Big Ten Championship game Saturday).
Additionally, I don’t want to hear about the ways Michigan could have been in better position to win that game and not “left it up to the officials.” Ohio State is a great team playing in its home stadium. That Michigan was even within a half-yard of winning the game is already a demonstration of talent; of course the Wolverines will make some mistakes along the way, just as Ohio State did, just as any team in a high-level game probably will. Had the call (or either controversial pass interference late in the game) been adjudicated differently, Michigan is your winner. The outcome of that decision is literally the difference between a win and a loss.
I’m not blaming officials for making mistakes; heck, I don’t even know for sure that they were wrong in this final example. But I think it’s too lazy to simply point to a million other things in the game. It may be an appropriate technique to motivate players or help them move on, but it's an over-generalization. I also think the system allows for a late-stream correction to address the wrong.
“Aaron Rodgers isn’t clutch.”
This is the weirdest narrative in Wisconsin sports history.
Twitter friend Paul Noonan has, in the past, chronicled some of the junk stats that have portrayed Aaron Rodgers as a quarterback who doesn’t lead fourth-quarter comebacks, breaking down the specific examples of games in which he “failed” to lead a comeback. Never mind that “quarterback wins” are a bit of a reach as a stat, anyway.
“In 2012, Rodgers was the victim of the Packers’ defense on three separate occasions. Against the Seahawks, Rodgers led the Packers to a go-ahead touchdown with 8:44 remaining, only to see Russell Wilson throw the game-winning interception to M.D. Jennings. …
"In 2014, Rodgers was clutch in the playoffs against Dallas because he gutted it out on a gimpy calf, but then he wasn’t clutch against Seattle because the defense couldn’t protect a 16-point lead.
"Last year, he wasn’t clutch against Detroit in Green Bay because Mason Crosby shanked the game-winning field goal, but then he was clutch against Detroit because of a dubious facemask call and Richard Rodgers lumbering down the field to catch a Hail Mary.
"And then there’s Arizona, where Rodgers was clutch because of Jeff Janis, but then not really clutch because Damarious Randall forgot to cover a Hall of Fame receiver.”
Sure, these are just examples. But in the small-sample world of NFL football, where there simply aren’t enough games to point to substantive “trends,” it’s a huge percentage of the data held against Rodgers. And there are plenty more examples where those came from, especially in 2008 and 2010.
Rodgers has carried the Packers offensively, both in the air and on the ground, through one of their toughest stretches in recent memory here in 2016. If they somehow run the table, which we’d be crazy to discount as a possibility, he’s a bona fide MVP candidate. Not only that, but he’s shown an adaptability in recent weeks by eschewing his typical down-field throws for shorter passes that have allowed the team to hold the ball longer and counteract a shaky defense.
“PED users shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.”
The Major League Baseball Hall of Fame inductees will be announced in early January, and ballots were released in late November. We’re reaching an interesting crossroads in the steroid-era review, where players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens –- two surefire Hall of Fame candidates under other circumstances –- are running out of opportunities on the ballot.
I thought by now voters might be forgiving of those players, who never fully admitted steroid use and never failed an MLB test, but it would be naïve to discount the evidence against them. Still, given the range of professional and personal violations committed by other Hall of Famers from other eras, I really thought time would heal some of those unsightly blemishes, and writers would ultimately find a place for their rare talents in the Hall.
Potential casualties of the steroid era such as Mike Piazza (inducted last year) and Jeff Bagwell (probably inducted this year) have persevered. Another close call is Ivan Rodriguez, a catcher who has shouldered his share of speculation –- and, in my mind, is the most obvious case of a potential PED user based on circumstantial evidence, aside from Bonds and Clemens.
Rodriguez holds the record for most hits as a catcher and most games caught, 13 gold gloves, an MVP Award and postseason success. But Jose Canseco did make claims about his PED usage, and Pudge dropped a ton of weight just as the testing program kicked in. Reminder: Many of the players were using these substances before MLB had a testing program – and, in some cases, before MLB had even banned the substances (Mark McGwire’s use of androstenedione is the most famous case).
It’s unjust to hold Bonds and Clemens out but admit Rodriguez. It’s almost as if, by virtue of being a tier below those players, Rodriguez was insulated from the same scrutiny. If the Hall of Fame is going to try and parse who’s guilty, which is an insane exercise that will never arrive at anything resembling pure truth, it’s going to continue to lose its credibility as a monument to the game's history.
Let all the "steroid" players in. In my mind, it’s nonsense to suggest these players lacked or would have lacked Hall of Fame credentials whether or not they used PEDs. Clearly, those substances had some positive effect on their career (even if it’s impossible to gauge just how much). But the same can be said for the amphetamines enabling players to shrug off fatigue (not banned in baseball until 2005) or even the advantage some players had before integration of the Negro leagues. For some reason, we still hold PEDs as a higher violation than many other problematic characteristics, and I’m increasingly dumbfounded by it.