When I hear people complain about football officials, I take it with a grain of salt.
Having something to say about a official has to be one of the most common complaints in the world, right alongside someone’s in-laws or their boss. According to many fans’ perspectives, a referee hates their team, makes nothing but wrong calls and is only there to help the other side claim victory.
I’ve heard plenty of people complain about the officiating within the Columbus Football Officials Association since I moved here, and I largely ignored it. But what I saw last Thursday at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium is something I simply cannot overlook.
The comprehensive work of the crew that called Thursday’s showdown between Americus-Sumter and Hardaway was undoubtedly the worst I’ve seen in my time as a sports writer. The timing could not have been worse for a crew to be so sloppy, as both teams are in the thick of the Region 1-4A playoff race.
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One call that stood out above the rest came with just over nine minutes to go in the first quarter. With Americus-Sumter up 7-0, Hardaway defensive back Jakhari Thomas made an interception in the end zone then proceeded forward. He was tackled right along the goal line, meaning the play should have been ruled a touchback or perhaps the Hawks’ ball at the 1-yard line.
But after hearing from two of the crew’s officials, referee Alvin Howard ruled it was a safety.
After I discussed the rule with GHSA associate director Tommy Whittle and watched the replay, it’s undeniable the call was incorrect. The only situation in which a safety could have been called is if Thomas left the end zone and came back, which video clearly shows he did not.
It is true that the officials do not have access to instant replay. But at the same time, the crew’s explanation to Thomas wasn’t even correct.
“When I got tackled I thought it was a touchback, but as I was running to the sideline they called a safety,” Thomas said. “When the officials made the call, they said if you attempt to come out of the end zone, it’s a safety.”
Hardaway head coach Michael Woolridge, who declined to comment Tuesday, relayed a similar explanation immediately after the game’s conclusion.
“From my understanding, if he is in the end zone and attempts to come out and gets tackled, then it’s a safety,” Woolridge said.
Whittle and Columbus Football Officials Association executive secretary Ben Elder agreed the call should have been a touchback if the intercepting player caught the ball in the end zone and was tackled within the end zone without ever leaving it.
Elder, who has called games for 45 years, said, “I don’t think officiating cost (anyone) a ballgame this year. The officiating has affected no games whatsoever.”
I’m not sure I agree.
That incorrect safety call gave Americus-Sumter two points and the ball back, and the Panthers quickly scored a touchdown. That nine-point swing helped Americus-Sumter take a 16-0 lead, but that should have never happened.
Hardaway fought back but eventually lost 55-41—the Hawks cut it to a nine-point game with 11:18 left in the fourth — after digging themselves out of that 16-0 deficit.
It was a hole they should have never been in in the first place.
I would let one wrong call go, but it was just part of a pattern. There are always questionable judgment calls such as holding penalties, and there were plenty of those that were head-scratchers. But I took more issue with the blatant inability to operate the game clock, which happened multiple times.
With about two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the clock operator erroneously allowed at least 15 seconds to run off the clock. I piped up that time needed to be added back, which was the second or third occasion that night that I voiced my opinion regarding the game clock.
I only saw Hardaway and Americus-Sumter Thursday night, but judging from people I trust who were across town at Kinnett Stadium, the officiating there also left plenty to be desired.
I don’t expect any official to be perfect. Plays happen at a bang-bang rate of speed, and it’s impossible for everyone to agree on what a call should be. But these officials need to be held to the standard of knowing the rules, enforcing the rules and executing all aspects of their jobs.
I had heard people complain throughout the fall about the local football officials and claim how incompetent they could be. On Thursday, I saw firsthand why.
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports