By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Today’s discussion is a difficult one and is not meant to cast aspersions or put forth accusations upon the men and women who serve as officials in the sports that captivate our imagination.
We have always operated in this corner of the sportswriting world under the belief that it was best to discuss sports without involving the officiating unless it absolutely had to be involved. Incidents such as umpire Jim Joyce’s call in what should have been a perfect game, umpire Don Denkinger blowing Game 6 of a World Series and costing the St. Louis Cardinals a world championship or Russia being given three chances to inbound the ball against the USA in winning the 1972 Olympic men’s basketball championship certainly would be the exceptions.
In truth, I find myself often shouting at fans who are shouting at officials for calls they make that go against that fan’s team, in part because fans see things as they want to see them and because officials, like players, make mistakes, too. I find it abhorrent to make them correct those mistakes after a long look at instant replay when players are not given the same courtesy.
So why then are we today about to discuss, at least in general tones, the officiating that went on during West Virginia University’s hard-fought loss to No. 1/2 Kansas earlier this week?
The reason is that it seems to be on the minds of a great number of people and because it is something that has always intrigued this inquiring mind.
Certainly, following the game in which Kansas shot 34 free throws and West Virginia 15, Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins referenced the referees. He did not do so critically, although he was certainly not offering high praise, either.
“Did I think they would shoot 34 free throws and we shoot 15? No,” said Huggins following the game. “We have, up until about a week ago, made more free throws than our opponents have taken. We were No. 1 in the power six conferences.”
Translated, Huggins was trying to say that there was something different about the way this game was being officiated than other games.
Which takes us where we are trying to go.
Without making any kind of accusation, the question must be asked if the top teams in sports don’t subconsciously get breaks from officials.
We are not talking about officials fixing games or doing anything intentional to rig the finish. In truth, there we only wish our politicians were as honest as are our sports officials.
But these men are human, too, and as a fan sees things the way he wants to see things, so, too, could an official, and if you are working for a conference who benefits from having the nation’s No. 1 team or as many Top 10 teams as it can have — be it for NCAA Tournament appearances and seeding or for getting into a national football playoff — could you not be subconsciously influenced in what you see?
In truth, the Kansas game wasn’t officiated much differently than a number of other WVU games this season in the Coliseum. Privately, in fact, there has been some displeasure within the basketball facility with the way some Big 12 home games have been called, WVU not getting whatever home-court advantage it has become accustomed to having.
Is it a “welcome to the Big 12” thing or simply a different officiating philosophy than prevailed in the Big East?
Certainly, with the money that is involved in collegiate — and, of course, professional — sports today, there are forces at work that cast shadows on almost everything that goes on in the games we play.
That athletes have cheated with performance enhancing drugs has become an old story, but we’re not just talking about football and baseball, although they have just come back into the news with the story out of Miami that has re-implicated Alex Rodriguez and the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis.
But it didn’t stop at those big-money sports, as Lance Armstrong has proven to us all.
If cycling can be tainted, what is sacred?
And that brings us back to the officiating situation.
It isn’t that anything suspicious went on in the Kansas game, or in the other games, for that matter, but the art of officiating is so subjective and varies so much from one official to another, from one crew to another and often from one conference to another that it allows anyone to question it.
And so it is when one crew allows bumping and banging and another crew calls every touch foul, you wonder what is going on and think thoughts that you know can’t possibly be true.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.