MAD ABOUT YOU: Zebras Making Crucial Mistakes

We’ve all done it.

Who hasn’t joked about referees wearing glasses, yelled profane names, or even thrown things at the TV?

The role of a sports fan is first to root for the team but second to let the officials hear it when they don’t make the right call.

As a fan, I’ve often woken up a roommate with getting up to scream at the TV after a missed block in the back call or a strike three called ball four. Last weekend, it was a questionable unsportsmanlike conduct call at the end of the Harvard-Princeton matchup that had me up in arms.

These are not simple mistakes. They have never been. They won’t ever be.

I haven’t forgotten all the times my team has been cheated or the times they have benefited from impaired vision.

Who could forget the infamous strike three and run to first for Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski in Game 2 of the 2005 ALCS?

Kelvim Escobar and Josh Paul certainly haven’t.

As a White Sox fan, I sat in front of my TV overjoyed when pinch runner Pablo Ozuna scored the winning run but puzzled at how the umpire could call strike three, make a fist to signal the out, and then call the player safe at first.

Yes, I want to win. No, I don’t want to have to qualify a win with, “Oh, well, there was this one play where the umpire…”

Officials have established a near-authoritarian regime over sports. They’ve made their presence felt early and often and gotten involved whenever they please.

Before, it seemed to last on a minimal scale: one botched home run call in the 1996 Orioles-Yankees ALCS here, another Troy Polamalu interception-turned-incomplete pass in the 2005 NFL playoffs there.

Now it is becoming an epidemic.

Single calls are stopping plays, shifting momentum, and changing outcomes.

NCAA football is the first site of the immense outbreak. It’s not just that referees are making controversial calls; they are frequently making the wrong calls.

Just ask Oklahoma fans.

The Sooners certainly haven’t forgotten about the onside kick that was called good both on the field and in the review booth.

Despite video evidence, the referees got the call wrong and it cost the Sooners the game, as the ensuing drive led to an Oregon touchdown.

Go ahead, ask them. They are still bitter.

And I would be too.

Flags have been thrown without hesitation in situations where refs didn’t want to give the benefit of the doubt.

It was only a matter of time before problems would hit closer to home.

At the end of a hard-fought battle between the Harvard football team and Princeton last Saturday, free safety Danny Tanner broke up a pass, making it fourth-and-four for the Tigers. With the Crimson up 28-24, a stop would have sealed the deal.

After the incompletion, Tanner turned to his teammates and celebrated by jumping into the air while hitting his chest with his hand. It’s a motion every football player from the little leagues to the NFL has made in his career without restriction.

Nevertheless, a late flag was thrown, unsportsmanlike conduct was called, and Princeton’s drive continued, leading to a Tiger score and a 31-28 victory.

As Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said after the game, that call is never made in Ivy League football. The purpose it served remains up in the air.

Maybe it is the press that on-field fights have gotten in the last few weeks.

The recent blow-up between the Miami and Florida International football teams, which escalated into a full-scale brawl and 31 suspensions, overshadowed a fight between Holy Cross and Dartmouth players on the same day.

After a Holy Cross touchdown, several Crusaders danced on the Dartmouth “D,” leading several members of the Big Green to let the punches and crunches fly, according to The Dartmouth, the school’s student newspaper.

Did these incidents convince the league to crack down on celebrations of any kind, even the seemingly innocent ones, this past weekend?

With the sportsmanship and class required of football players, I’m not entirely sure that is the way to go. Penalties should not be called simply based on the prospect of a problem, and referees should not let other games influence their calls.

I don’t know what has happened to the old motto, “Just let ’em play.” I am beginning to long for the days of purer games, where results were determined by great performances and the game itself.

Unfortunately for all of us, those days appear to be gone.

Welcome to the whistle generation.

—Staff writer Madeleine I. Shapiro can be reached at mshapiro@fas.harvard.edu.

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