Sunday, September 24, 2006


My dad is a retired anesthesiologist. I don't remember the context of this conversation, but it has stuck with me through the years. I remember him saying this: "Here's why I make the big bucks. When someone else has a bad day at work, maybe they don't make a sale, or maybe they have to start a project over. When I have a bad day at work, someone goes into brain death."

For some reason, that's come to my mind as the issue of officials' accountability has come up again in the wake of the Oklahoma/Oregon fiasco. I think it's because, like physicians, when officials make errors, others suffer the consequences. (Of course, losing a game isn't as important as brain death, no matter what the University of Oklahoma's President David Boren might tell you.)

In any event, as a result of last week's situation and the hot conversation I've been having about it here, I keep thinking about what "accountability" for officials would or should look like.

This post is my first effort to figure that out.

What should happen to an official who makes an egregious, game changing error?

For me, it seems that there are two options.

One is this: whatever happens to a coach or player should happen to an official.

As best as I can tell, players who make one egregious error are not penalized. Let's look at some of the worst choices made by players in history:

Egregious errors:

Bill Buckner was a Red Sox in 1987 (although he was traded midway through the year). He even returned to the Red Sox for his last season in baseball, 1990.

After calling his infamous time out, Chris Webber was still the #1 overall pick in the NBA draft.

After his egregious mental error in the 1998 ALCS, Chuck Knoblauch still batted leadoff for the Yankees for the rest of the postseason. He didn't miss even one at-bat.

Exception to the rule: Grady Little. Although the story feels too simple and convenient to be sture, for argument's sake, we will accept that he was canned for the one managerial mistake of keeping Pedro Martinez in the game at the end of the 2003 ALCS.

But, for the most part, even the most egregious errors don't result in "sanctions" to players.

Let's suppose the player/coach errors were under more difficult circumstances. I'm thinking of, Mitch Williams and Donnie Moore giving up key home runs to Joe Carter and Dave Henderson, respectively, or of Jerome Bettis' big fumble in last year's AFC Divisional game that nearly cost the Steelers the game.

Results are similar here. Mitch Williams was traded right away, but the other two stayed on.

On the whole, there were no suspensions or "accountability" for these players' errors.

This might be because players' and coaches' "accountability" is built in. Each of these players/managers (except Bettis) lost big games because of their big errors. They've already paid the price. In my dad's metaphor, they're not anesthesiologists; they're salesmen. Their errors only hurt themselves and their teammates.

Historically, as best as I can tell, not much has happened to officials who have made bad errors. Don Denkinger and Rich Garcia's famous errors brought no sanctions...neither missed any games, and both worked World Series later in their careers.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that this is the way I feel it should be. For starters, every official in a playoff game has earned their trip. Each was a respected umpire who made a mistake. There is no guarantee that officials' human failings will be checked at the door just because it's the playoffs.

However, there is are instances of officials being penalized for mistakes as well. When three women's basketball officials made a pair of errors that might have helped Alabama score its last-second hoop to defeat UCLA in 1998, the NCAA issued this statement saying that mistakes were made and that the officials would no longer be used in the tournament. This also does not bother me. The NCAA basketball tournament also is a de facto tournament for officials...those with the best performances in early-round games (as judged by evaluators) move on to the next round. So dropping the crew that made the big mistake seems like a naturally occuring, organic consequence.

And, as has been beaten to death on this blog, the Oklahoma/Oregon officials were suspended (although one will work this weekend's USC/Arizona seems that they're too shorthanded to suspend everyone at once).

There is even a recent instance of a World Cup qualifying game being replayed because of an official's error, about which I had mixed feelings.

What's the best way of handling officials' errors?

I think it's instructive to look at what happens to doctors.

I talked to a doctor friend of mine the other day, and I asked him: what happens to a good doctor who makes a bad mistake?

First of all, there's the risk of a lawsuit. There have been some lawsuits against officials who have made calls that participants disagree with, most notably an Oklahoma high school football ejection last season (the Oklahoma Supreme Court rightly told the prosecution to stuff it--that they're not in the business of officiating football). I should hope that this never becomes par for the course in American officiating.

Barring that, the physician's mistake would go on file with the state. If there were a pattern, he would have trouble getting work due to higher insurance costs. If there were a pattern of errors, he/she would lose his/her job and be unlikely to find another.

It seems to me that this is the way it should be for officials as well. A good official who makes one mistake is still a good official. Ideally, all officials would be perfect. Since they're not, I don't think penalizing them for errors accomplishes anything other than sating the victims' blood-lust.

Of course, if there are repeated errors, that official needs to lose his/her job, as surely as anyone who repeatedly screws up at any job would lose it.

But one mistake? Let it go. It's a shame that it happened, just as it is with a physician's, pilot's, or air traffic controller's errors. But if an excellent doctor can be back at work the day after a mistake, I don't see why an excellent official can't.

Everybody wants to reduce mistakes. That's where the focus should be. As I see it, penalizing officials doesn't do anything to help the game.


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