ATHENS -- Yes, referees and officials have an exceedingly difficult job. And that job has been made only more difficult this year by the targeting rule, which in its infancy is creating many problems.
And yes, the targeting rule has good intentions and in the long run will be good for football. It will make it safer, it will change behavior, and that’s a process the powers-that-be are trying to begin this year.
But let’s not overlook mistakes.
There is a chance a bad targeting call could end up deciding the SEC East. Georgia hopes it doesn’t. So does the SEC office. But it could happen.
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That is why, among other reasons, officials need to be as accountable as players, coaches and administrators. That’s why there is a need for more transparency, especially this year.
SEC officials generally do a good job. If you don’t think so, go ask anyone in the Pac-12. And coordinator of officials Steve Shaw does a good job generally explaining issues, and he has been out in front on the targeting issue.
But what happened in the Georgia-Vanderbilt game is still leaving ill feelings around Athens -- “We definitely did get robbed,” freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins said Monday -- and the SEC hasn’t done enough to assuage them.
It sent a mixed message to have the same crew, headed by referee Matt Moore, work this past weekend’s high-profile CBS game between No. 1 Alabama and Tennessee. Just one week earlier, one of Moore’s officials, side judge Mike Williams, called targeting on Georgia’s Ramik Wilson, extending a Vanderbilt drive that otherwise would have resulted in a turnover on downs. After huddling up, Moore kept the call, only to have it overturned on replay review -- but the damage was done to Georgia, which gave up a touchdown and eventually the game.
“We legitimately stopped that drive,” head coach Mark Richt said last week. “So even though the penalty stood, I think they (Georgia’s defensive players) know in their heart they got the stop when they needed to get the stop.”
Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity acknowledges having discussions with the SEC about both targeting calls, but he declines to make them public.
“It’s better for me not to comment on those conversations,” McGarity said. “That’s why they are conversations and nothing in writing. They’re just dealt with over the phone, and probably we’d prefer to keep those as they are, in confidential in nature.”
Was McGarity satisfied in what he heard? He pointed to Shaw’s statement about pushing for changes in the targeting penalty, adding he would be “behind that 100 percent. But pressed about transparency and accountability, McGarity demurred.
“I probably need to remain silent there,” he said.
And that’s the problem. There should be more transparency in a process that involves a conference watched by millions of fans and including 13 out of 14 public schools.
The officials at Vanderbilt actually had a pretty good game, other than the two targeting calls. But that’s kind of like saying Georgia’s special teams had a pretty good game other than the muffed punt snap and muffed punt catch -- which had as much impact as the targeting call on Wilson.
After that game, Richt had to answer multiple questions about his special teams, and justifiably so. He was asked again for his justification for not having a special teams coordinator.
So why don’t SEC officials, when they do have an effect on the game, for better or worse, for right or wrong, also have to explain their decisions? Clearly the call on Wilson was incorrect, because it was overturned. The SEC apparently feels that’s explanation enough, but since it arguably cost Georgia the game, some sort of acknowledgement of that should be made.
It’s good enough for the NFL, which regularly releases statements acknowledging blown calls. It doesn’t change the results, but it does make officials publicly accountable. It’s also just the decent thing to do.
It’s good enough for Major League Baseball, where umpire Jim Joyce answered media questions after Saturday’s Game 3 of the World Series. The same Jim Joyce, by the way, whose blown call famously cost Armando Gallaraga a perfect game. But when Joyce admitted his mistake immediately after the game, it turned sympathy in his favor too.
The SEC says it’s not ready yet to make referees available to pool reporters after games, although it doesn’t dismiss the idea.
“When we feel a situation in-game rises to a certain level, the SEC is quick to react with a statement or release explaining the situation after speaking with the appropriate parties,” SEC spokesman Chuck Dunlap said Monday. “In regards to targeting, the SEC is working and will continue to work after the season to correct any inadequacies in the rule that may exist.”
Shaw also tried his best last week to talk about targeting, staying on the SEC teleconference for twice as long as any coach.
Still, saying that he would not comment on the specific targeting calls got things off on the wrong foot. It can be argued that the officials are just doing what they’ve been told to do, and that Shaw and his counterparts in other conferences will have their back. That’s fine. But just because they’re supposed to err on the side of throwing the flag doesn’t mean that when they actually do err that they should not be accountable.
Look, no one’s looking for anybody’s head on a platter. Officials have a very difficult job.
But if I make a mistake in this column, I will have to own up to it, not only to my editors, but publicly.
The referees and officials in the SEC should be held to the same standard.