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NCAA football rule absurd

| Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008

Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt did a double take as he watched a clip of Washington quarterback Jake Locker getting flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.

"I was shocked," Wannstedt said. "I had to see it again to actually identify what the penalty was."

A lot of us did, because Locker simply tossed the ball into the air -- a spontaneous, harmless act -- as he leapt to his feet to hug teammates after scoring a dramatic touchdown Saturday.

If one could put words to Locker's act, the words might be, "Let me get rid of this thing so I can jump into somebody's arms." There was so obviously no taunting or self-worship involved, so obviously no unsportsmanlike conduct.

Locker had capped a heart-stopping drive with a 3-yard run, pulling his team to within 28-27 with two seconds left against No. 15 BYU. Washington needed only an extra point to force overtime, but the attempt was moved back 15 yards because of the penalty. The kick was blocked.

I can't remember a more ridiculous and unjust ending to a college game.

Connecticut coach Randy Edsall vehemently defended the call when I asked him about it Monday. Edsall is a member of the NCAA rules committee, and the NCAA made post-touchdown behavior a point of emphasis this season.

Good thing it's focused on the critical issues.

"I don't know why everybody got upset," Edsall said. "It is specifically stated in the rule book that you can't throw the ball up."

Indeed it is, under Rule 9, Section 2, Article 1. That is where "throwing the ball high into the air" after a TD is prohibited and punishable by a 15-yard penalty.

How high into the air• It doesn't specify, so anyone who says the rule is clear-cut is mistaken. The Pac-10 referee who worked the game, Larry Farina, issued a statement afterward, claiming it was "not a judgment call."

Edsall agreed.

"The official had no other choice but to throw the flag," Edsall said, "because if he didn't, now the official's going to have a problem."

OK, then, let me ask this: What about other "prohibited acts" under Rule 9, Section 2, Article 1• Are they enforced as rigidly, or do officials use common sense?

For example, the first prohibited act states that "no player, substitute (or) coach shall use abusive, threatening or obscene language ..."

No swearing in football• Not even from player to player or coach to player?

I must be a terrible lip reader.

Another one: "During the game, coaches ... shall not be on the field of play without permission from the referee."

I asked Wannstedt whether coaches ever step onto the field.

"Well, yeah, every coach does," he said. "But (the officials) are pretty good. They'll usually turn and say, 'Hey, coach, keep it back a little bit.' We work with them."

In other words, common sense and good judgment prevail. The official massages the rule instead of enforcing it like a brainless automaton.

The problem lies not so much with the official who flagged Locker but with a system that created the conditions by which such a mindless, spiritless response could occur.

David Parry, the national coordinator for college football, said Tuesday that the rules committee might revisit the language of the rule during the offseason. He defended the Locker call, saying officials were trained and instructed through video and meetings to crack down on unsportsmanlike conduct this season.

"He had about one second to make up his mind," Parry said, "and the rule book is very clear."

Good thing an automaton wasn't working the Fiesta Bowl two years ago, because when Boise State pulled to within a point of Oklahoma on a miraculous, 50-yard hook-and-lateral, receiver Jerard Rabb threw the ball right out of the end zone.

Technically, Rabb's action violated the rule that states a scoring player may not throw the ball "any distance that requires an official to retrieve it." If he'd been flagged and Boise State had missed the extra point, we never would have seen that spectacular overtime.

Wannstedt saved the Locker clip to use as a warning to his team. He believes that while the official "had the right to throw the flag," there is a need for discretion in such instances. After all, every call is a judgment call.

"I know the rule, but, boy, there's a gray area that needs to be talked about," Wannstedt said. "And I'm sure at the (NCAA rules committee) meetings this January, it will be."

It better be, because anyone associated with college football should be mortified by the way that game ended.

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