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Kovacevic: Refs out to get your team? How?

| Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, 11:52 p.m.
Nebraska's Taylor Martinez (3) laughs with referees during a timeout during a game against Penn State on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, in Lincoln, Neb. (AP)
Nebraska's Taylor Martinez (3) laughs with referees during a timeout during a game against Penn State on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, in Lincoln, Neb. (AP)

I'm never more loudly reminded of society's technological advances than when readers reflexively react to a referee or umpire bungling a call.

A few days ago in the MetLife Stadium press box, for example, that not-really-a-fumble by Ben Roethlisberger set off every tweet, beep, ding and whistle on my iPad, iPhone and probably several body parts at this stage of our Apple-fed evolution.

“That was a pass!”

“Arm's going forward!”

“Tuck rule!”

That's nothing. Presumably once all concerned grasp that their cries will go unheeded by anyone who matters — usually takes a few seconds — the next wave is all-out iParanoia …

“Every call goes against us!”

“The NFL wants the Giants to win for Hurricane Sandy victims!”

“Roger Goodell is there! He hates the Steelers!”

Really, it's just like that, from blown call to burgeoning conspiracy, from these guys are blind to these guys are robbing us blind.

And much as I'd love to dismiss this as first-time-caller-Bill-from-Blawnox nonsense, I also hear it from otherwise intelligent, rational humans.

It's become a perfectly acceptable point of sporting discourse, with barely an eyebrow raised and not a thimble's worth of thought invested in, you know, how such a thing could actually be pulled off.

Flash forward to this past weekend, when Penn State tight end Matt Lehman reached with the ball across the goal line for an apparent touchdown just before it was swatted out of his hand. The ruling was a fumble, and it was upheld on the review.

Another blown call, per my TV view. Worse than the one on Ben.

But no, that wouldn't do …

“The Big Ten has hated Penn State for 20 years now!”

“They don't want sanctioned schools to make them look bad!”

“We'll never get any breaks after what happened last year!”

Let's go along with this for a moment. Let's try to set the scene for how calls would be made to favor or stick it to specific teams or schools.

I've got three possibilities:

1. The literal definition of conspiracy — more than one person involved — would need to apply.

In the Steelers' case, even if you set aside the hilarity of Goodell going into cahoots with refs he tried to bury in a labor dispute, he'd have to risk his career, reputation and $20 million salary to tell either his director of officiating or the refs themselves, “Hey, men, it sure would be swell if we pull one out for the Sandy cause today!”

No way that gets out, huh?

Same applies to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, especially if he's worked to put down Penn State for two decades, as the cardboard-cutout-carrying wing of the fan base suggests.

2. The referee or umpire would need to process his bias within split-second calls. In other words, rather than focusing on the play and applicable rules, they'd lock in on the color of the uniforms.

Anyone who has officiated any sport at any level will attest no such thing is possible. Athletes and coaches demand quick, authoritative calls.

Besides, any such bias would need to be shared telepathically among multiple officials, right?

3. The officials would have to be corrupt.

Yeah, that's all.

It's easy to cite Tim Donaghy, the NBA referee infamously caught taking bribes in 2002. But to me, linking Donaghy to all officials is no fairer than linking a cheating Bill Belichick to all head coaches. Both are, mercifully, a rare breed.

Look, officials are human. Biases can and do come into play.

Some officials have clear issues with individual players. You see it when an umpire expands a strike zone for a batter who complains. You see it when Ryan Clark or Matt Cooke gets near an opponent. One NBA referee penned an op-ed in the New York Times this summer apologizing for carrying a longtime grudge against Spurs star Tim Duncan.

But institutional bias emanating from the league level?

For all we hear about Notre Dame football and Duke hoops and the Patriots getting all the breaks, for all John Tortorella's bloviating about how the “whining” Penguins get special treatment, for Mike Holmgren's “I didn't know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts, as well” after Super Bowl XL, the evidence to back these emotional, illogical claims somehow never surfaces.

But hey, when Goodell shows up at Heinz Field wearing purple Sunday night, you know how to reach me.

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