At the beginning of overtime in the National Championship game the other night, something occurred that has stuck in my mind way longer than I thought it would. You may not have noticed unless you were neurotically focused on details like me. Even if you did go back and watch the replay, you can miss it if you’re not watching for it.
The captains came out for the coin toss as per usual. Referee Mike Defee gave them the boilerplate explanation as to how the overtime rules worked, as though we haven’t been doing this now since 1996. Alabama called tails because it never fails. Then Defee turned to the Alabama captain and said, “You want to defend first, right?” The captain said yes, and Defee said, that’s what I figured.
Stop and ponder that for a moment. There was at least a minuscule chance that the Alabama captain would have had a brain lock and taken the ball first. There is in fact, precedent for this. In the 1962 AFL Championship Game, Abner Haynes of the Dallas Texans misunderstood his coach’s instructions and gave Houston both the ball and the wind at the start of overtime. Dallas won the game anyway, saving Haynes a spot in football infamy. This could have happened with Alabama. Even worse, Nick Saban might have had some crazy idea up his sleeve and when Defee provided his guidance, he prompted the captain to do the opposite of what Saban wanted.
In the end, it probably didn’t matter. But it does raise a question as to how much a game official can say to a coach or a player without prejudicing the outcome of the game. Furthermore, it raises questions about the integrity of the outcome. If this was an outdoor game, would it have been fine, after helping Alabama out the way he did, if Defee had turned to the Georgia captain and told him which way the wind was blowing? Of course, Georgia probably has three assistant coaches in charge of tracking the direction of the wind, but once you breach the wall of officials having input on either team’s decision, where do you stop?
How about after a penalty, when the decision as to whether to accept or decline is a bit complicated? Can the ref go over to the coach and explain to the coach the math, that if he accepts the penalty it will be second-and-16, but if he declines it will be third-and-10? Maybe some refs do that, I don’t know for sure. If they do, do they all go into the same detail? Or do they go into more detail with some coaches than others?
Has a side judge ever told the coach standing next to him to ask for a replay on a call? Has a coach ever called a timeout or declined a penalty, seen a surprised look on a ref’s face, and backtracked before the call became official? Has a ref ever seen a coach or player begin to do something unspeakably stupid, and said, “are you sure?”
Here’s a real twist. What if Defee had given his little prompt to the Alabama captain and been wrong? Once a ref decides to provide a little helpful guidance, does the team have any recourse if they follow the advice and it blows up in their face? What if Defee had said, you want the ball first, right? And the Alabama captain had said “yes sir” because he’s been taught to say that to an authority figure, and the game turned out differently as a result?
You can go overboard on something like this, and I probably have. But as time passes we either live by norms or we don’t. Once we don’t, we either establish a new norm or we keep pushing the old norm further and further. And we have those norms for a reason. Mike Defee is certainly an upstanding guy and meant no harm by what he did. But now that he has nudged what seemed like a norm out of the way, the next guy will no longer feel bound by it. Hell, he may even feel empowered to push the norm even further. And that next guy might not be so upstanding.