From the Sidelines: The law of the jungle

Published 7:03 pm Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Referees unquestionably have the hardest job in sports. They are expected to see everything at all times. And no matter what, without fail, they’re always wrong in someone’s eyes.

In many ways, they’re kind of the opposite of the customer, who is always right. I sympathize with the plight of the official. He does what he does generally for low pay and less respect.

At the high school level, it is considerably worse. More often than not, high school officials are individuals who work a regular day job and choose to don the stripes to feed an inherent love of the game. The compensation is typically nothing to speak of, especially considering the aforementioned professional hazards.

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The referee is a symbol of character, integrity and order. He cannot be expected to be perfect. But he is expected to uphold the rules, enforce sportsmanship and see that the game is played in a fair and upright manner.

What took place Friday night in Fayette was a mockery of the profession. It was an outright abandonment of either integrity or competency. Either way, it was an embarrassment to the game.

Two very game teams took the field that night. The first meeting between Demopolis and Fayette was so competitive that its events are still fabled by those blessed enough to have witnessed it.

Friday’s game started with much the same panache. It opened with all the makings of a defensive struggle. Demopolis pushed its first possession to the 25-yard line of Fayette despite a holding penalty before the offense sputtered. Two plays later, a timely turnover gave the boys in a blue and white a second chance. They managed to advance the ball to the one-yard line before another hold backed them up again.

It appeared early as if this contest would be governed by a no nonsense officiating crew that would strictly enforce the rules. That appearance quickly gave way as Fayette scored its first touchdown on a play in which many on the Demopolis sideline felt included multiple blatant holds and a block in the back. None of those alleged deviations from the rules were called.

Penalties not withstanding, this one still had all the makings of a great game. Besides, penalties are generally subjective in their very nature. The old adage remains true, “You could call holding on every play.”

So these referees can be given a pass on their interpretation of the holding rule.

The true atrocities that mired this game in controversy had very little to do with penalties.

Perhaps the most egregious, although not the most obvious, error committed by a referee during the contest came on an Anthony Hardy run up the middle.

The junior A-back took the ball straight up the gut and was met quickly by a collection of defenders. He continued driving his legs, making it difficult to determine whether or not his progress had stopped. However, his progress should have been a moot point.

See, Hardy’s helmet came off quickly after he encountered the Fayette defense. Everything after that point should have been entirely secondary. Considering he was in the midst of a scrum, the moment Anthony Hardy’s protective head gear was removed, that play should have been blown dead.

The safety of the players is absolutely first and foremost. Hardy left the game briefly following the play with a cut above his left eye. The injury was not major. But the “no harm no foul” principle cannot be employed here. Nor can the notion that perhaps the referees did not see the helmet on the ground.

To speak to the second defense first, Hardy’s upright running style made his suddenly exposed head clearly visible above the mess of bodies attempting to bring him down. And while it is little short of a blessing that he sustained no serious injury, such reckless negligence on the part of the men wearing the striped shirts, if displayed regularly, could easily lead to significant trauma.

As intense and exciting as the game is, it cannot be forgotten that its combatants are high school students and their health is far more important than the outcome of the game.

While the Hardy oversight was the most disconcerting lapse in judgment on the night, it certainly was not the only mishap by a referee.

Late in the third quarter with Fayette driving during a 14-14 tie, Demopolis linebacker Greg Irvin jarred the ball loose just beyond midfield. Attentive defensive lineman Tremaine Sanders quickly capitalized on the drop to recover the ball and hand Demopolis possession. Then, inexplicably, it was signalled that the ball remained with Fayette.

The explanation given to Tom Causey was that the referee on the Fayette sideline determined the Fayette ballcarrier’s progress was stopped, thus ending the play. That would have been a reasonable explanation of the circumstances if not for one simple fact. That referee along the Fayette sideline neglected to blow his whistle to signal the play dead. If the whistle is not blown, the play is not dead. That is a fundamental truth of football.

So, even though that particular player’s progress appeared halted to only one person in the stadium, the call would have been passable had protocol been followed.

Fayette went on to conclude that drive with what eventually proved to be the game-winning touchdown. The scoring play itself, a fourth down strike to the edge of the end zone, drew its share of criticism from fans questioning whether or not receiver Colton Billups’ feet were in bounds.

Still, the mentality of this particular group of officials was most on display during the waning moments of the game. After Fayette had the contest sewed up, the home Tigers got in the traditional victory formation in order to take a series of kneeldowns and end the game.

Even that portion of the game was robbed of its dignity by an official’s decision to throw two unmerited personal foul flags against the Demopolis sideline.

The visiting Tigers’ fumble inside the 10-yard line with the game on the line, the late interception, the inconsistency of the offense and a handful of other mistakes may be enough reason to say that the officials didn’t decide the game. But it is undeniable their impact was felt far more than it should have been.

The Demopolis Tigers may not have deserved to win that game. Its players and coaches will verify that. But they, and their counterparts on the opposite sideline, deserved to take part in a contest that was fair, integritous and sportsmanlike. And thanks to a small group of grown men who failed to honor the stripes they wore, neither set of Tigers was given even that most basic of entitlements.