If you are even the most casual of sports fans, then you saw the controversy from yesterday’s playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions, if not live, then during one of the seemingly endless replays on ESPN. At a crucial moment late in the game, with the Lions leading 20-17, on a third-and-1 play from the Dallas 46-yard line, Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens received a penalty for pass interference on Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Then, inexplicably, after a short conference between two officials, the call was reversed: no penalty, keep moving, nothing to see here folks.
Unfortunately, the infraction was like a beached whale: impossible to miss. The players on the field saw it. The fans in the stands saw it. Millions of TV viewers saw it from their homes, surrounded by beer and chips and with no restroom lines. The only people who didn’t see it were the officials.
Further adding to the strange nature of the non-call were two other rather obvious penalties on the same play. Before committing pass interference on Pettigrew, Hitchens grabbed his jersey as the Dallas player ran downfield, clearly defensive holding. And finally, as if this comedy of errors were not sufficient, Cowboy receiver Dez Bryant ran onto the field with his helmet off to protest the initial call. This is, or at least should be, an automatic 15-yard personal foul, about as challenging to interpret as a motorist driving through a red light.
For some odd reason, the NFL utilizes replays to review every type of situation except calls by the officials. The logic of this distinction is baffling. Not sure if the player crossed the goal line before he fumbled? Let’s run the tape. Did the ref just blow a penalty call? Sorry, we’ve arbitrarily decided this is not subject to review, for reasons which will forever remain mysterious. Yes, it’s undeniable the decision to pick up the penalty flag was wrong. Yes, a single quick review of the play revealed three separate penalties. But no, nothing we can do about it.
We see this resistance to new ways of doing things constantly. Technology creates tremendous changes to every aspect of our society. One of the great memes of the current digital revolution is somehow putting the power of the Internet in the palm of your hand makes you dumber. In the past, if I wanted to know something about, say, population trends in the US, I’d have to make sure the library was open, schlep there in my car, ask a reference librarian for help locating the US Census Bureau reports, and slog through hundreds of pages to find the data I desired. Net result: hours of effort plus extra greenhouse gas emissions. Now on the Census Bureau’s home page, I can see after about three seconds of effort the current US population is 320 million and counting. Somehow, I’m not sure why, but some people claim getting access to information exponentially faster and with less friction is a bad thing.
Eventually, the smart folks who run the NFL will get it right. College football, another lucrative business, fought the concept of a playoff to determine a national champion forever, until the dollar signs became too big to ignore.
Meanwhile, it will be a long off-season for the Detroit Lions and their fans. At least they have the Internet to keep themselves busy. But they should be careful. Too much web surfing destroys brain cells, or so they say.