Overruling Officials on Sports Outcomes is a Slippery Slope

By Jason Lisk

Play to the final whistle. It ain’t over until it’s over, until the last second ticks off, or the last out is recorded. That’s a basic tenet of sports. But what happens when it may not be over even then?

We have now seen, twice this year, cases where a team was incorrectly awarded a final play under the rules of football, and twice where the opponent came back to snatch victory from the jaws of what should have been a defeat under the proper procedures of the sport.

The first, of course, was at Oklahoma State earlier this year, when Central Michigan was given one final chance (incorrectly, under the various rules and exceptions on what can end a game) at an untimed down after an intentional grounding penalty. They scored on a miraculous, crazy play that would qualify as one of the wackiest, gut-punch endings even without the controversy.

Mike Gundy still talks like Oklahoma State has ten wins, rather than the official nine after that result was recorded.

The second, eerily under very similar circumstances, happened last week in the Illinois Class 7A Semifinal playoff game between Fenwick and Plainfield North. Fenwick had a 10-7 lead, at their own 15, with 4 seconds remaining, when the quarterback dropped back on fourth down and heaved a ball down the field to eat up the remaining time and end the game. However, just like in the Oklahoma State game, intentional grounding was called and the game was extended, incorrectly, by an untimed down. Plainfield North tied it with a field goal on that untimed down, then won in overtime.

Illinois High School Association bylaw 6.033 says “the decisions of game officials shall be final; protests against the decision of a game official shall not be reviewed by the Board of Directors.”

Fenwick coach Gene Nudo expressed his displeasure with the result, drawing distinction between other judgment calls that decide sporting events (perhaps incorrectly) and here, where officials incorrectly applied the rules on what should have been the final play.

"“Here is my argument,” Nudo said. “There will never ever be a protest for an egregious act as long as that rule is there. It’s a great way to hide behind something — it is final and that is it. How is that the right thing to do? “I’m not one of these guys always banging on the IHSA. I get it, they don’t have an easy gig over there. In this instance they had a chance to right a wrong and they didn’t. I get it — how do you tell Plainfield North they didn’t win? But you know what? They didn’t.” “This in no way is a reflection on Plainfield North. I kind of feel bad for them. It takes away from their moment. Those kids worked hard over there also. But the Fenwick kids won it fair and square, and the fact that this (apology) comes out afterward is of no consolation to me or our kids.” “(The Wheaton North loss) was controversial because there was a call we didn’t agree with, but it was a judgment call,” Nudo said. “This is not a judgment call by an official. This isn’t even applying an interpretation to a written rule.”"

Fenwick filed a lawsuit after the IHSA would not reverse the ruling, seeking a court to decide that they had won the game under the rules of the sport.

Today, the judge ruled, after hearing arguments from both sides, in favor of the IHSA. The result–the one that had Fenwick losing in overtime–stands. North Plainfield, the team that had the lead on the scoreboard when the game ended, advances to the final.

Here’s the thing. You can point to this case as being different because it came at the final play, or what should have been the final play. That, though, is putting a false dividing line on what is really a large, gray, slope full of slips and falls. Fenwick didn’t lose the game because of the call. They lost the victory, but the result was not set, alone, on that play.

The field goal could have been missed (or blocked). They could have won in overtime. For those of us that talk about things like “win probability” and how much plays are worth, they were probably about a 70% favorite to still win after the call. Oklahoma State’s chances were higher yet, requiring a truly 1 in a 100 type play. Sports are full of controversial plays that swing the outcome by 30% or more, all the time.

Where do we draw the line, if we invalidate the overarching rule–more overarching than the rules within the game–that a result is final? A play that is incorrectly ruled with a minute left, where the team getting screwed would have achieved a first down and been able to run out the clock? A “Miracle at the Meadowlands” could happen, but it’s basically a game-decider. Fifth down, as happened between Missouri and Colorado 26 years ago? The game-winner happened on the final play, on one that should not have happened. But you could look at the sequence of plays and hypothesize that Colorado would have called it differently (and not spiked the ball on what was actually fourth down) if the downs had been correctly called.

If we start down that path, then it doesn’t take long to find any number of cases, from judgment calls to misapplication of the rules. And once we are there, we see the delicate balance upon which the result stands. Luck, injuries, ejections, bounces and weather and all sorts of things outside the control of the player or team; all these play into the result.

The officials are one of them.

In saying this, I recognize the extreme hypothetical where an official could be corrupt, have gotten paid off, has an extreme bias against one side before the contest. This is a different scenario that would require a different result. Sport–the thing that makes it great, heartbreaking, and such fantastic theatre and entertainment–is you don’t know the outcome. Something that would tear at that fabric, that would pre-determine it, would be a different case than an innocent, if misguided, refereeing decision.

We live in uncertain times, and things aren’t always fair. Sports aren’t always fair, either, but knowing that the result is final is one of the few certainties we have. The judge in this case found that, even though Fenwick suffered “irreparable harm,” that result would stand. To find otherwise would have called into question so many more outcomes in sport.