Paul Valencia: Officials just call games by the rules

Commentary: Paul Valencia

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It might be difficult to believe, but officials are not always wrong. They are not always the reason your team loses.

Athletic associations and those pesky rules they enforce?

They are not always the devil, either.

Sometimes, a team or a player breaks a rule. Sometimes, a game official or an athletic association will make a ruling against that team or player.

And sometimes, even against popular opinion, that ruling sticks.

Even if ESPN makes a national story of a high school ruling, with its judgmental anchors on SportsCenter shaking their heads, wondering if the children will be able to move on from such a travesty.

Did you see the play in a state championship football game in Massachusetts? A player was on his way for the go-ahead touchdown, raised his hand in celebration, then scored. But he was flagged for that celebration, a spot foul in that state. That negated the touchdown. A play later, his team threw an interception and ended up losing the game.

Hey, that’s a huge deal. The local media were all over it.

Soon, the play went viral on the internet. And then, of course, the national sports media found their way to the story.

The narrative was that the official was wrong to throw the flag. That football player was just celebrating, not taunting.

Those of us who saw the play would agree that it appeared to be celebratory in nature, not a taunt.

However, there is no distinction in the Massachusetts rule.

Later, local media interviewed the player’s parents. They said that their son is a good person, never been in any trouble.

So? What does that have to do with the call on the field? Would an official know a kid’s background and throw a flag based on that background? Of course not. But it served the narrative, that this poor football player, a good student, a good guy, was wronged by a mean adult in stripes.

Please, fans, let’s stop going to the knee-jerk reaction that it is always the official’s fault. Argue against the rule, no problem. Suggest that game officials should be allowed to use their judgement to determine a taunt as opposed to a normal human celebration. I would be the first to sign such a petition.

But this season, Massachusetts’ governing body adopted the NCAA rule. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for celebration or taunting is a spot foul.

It happened to a Louisiana State player this year in a game against Florida. The punter faked out the Gators, was on his way to the end zone, then showboated for a nano-second. Spot penalty. No touchdown.

Reportedly, game officials in Massachusetts reminded coaches and captains of the new rule before every game this season.

A few years ago in our part of the world, Union’s Mitch Saylor scored on a long return after a blocked field goal in the game’s final seconds, giving the Titans a win in the state quarterfinals. About 10 yards from the end zone, he extended his arms, pretending to glide into the end zone. He was penalized, but the penalty was assessed on either the point after or the ensuing kickoff.

That remains the law of the land in Washington.

But each state has its different rules.

The comments section at websites throughout New England are full of opinions on the play. Some, claiming they are officials, say the would not have thrown the flag. To be fair, the wording of the rule leaves a lot to interpretation. So some officials would throw a flag, some would not. That does not make it a bad call. It makes it a confusing rule.

Yes, what happened in Massachusetts was difficult for the player and his team to accept. Hopefully, it will lead to a tweak in the rule so this does not happen again. Officials should be allowed to judge. Anybody who has played at any level knows there is a difference between a taunt and pure joy.

This year, in Massachusetts, that was not the rule.

Regardless, we as a sports society need to stop blaming the men and women who officiate our games as our first course of action. Sure, they make mistakes. So do the players and coaches. But we have to stop giving our athletes this crutch to lean on, that it’s always a wrong call.

What happened in Massachusetts that turned into a national story might be a bad rule, a poorly written one, too. That is up for debate.

So go change the rule, but don’t vilify the game official trying to interpret the confusing rule.

Paul Valencia covers high school sports for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4557 or e-mail at paul.valencia@columbian.com