Maybe it’s because I wasn’t rooting for the Raiders that day in the snow when Tom Brady started his march toward immortality.
Maybe it’s because my high school basketball teammates were upset about the referees in every game we played, in seasons when we had four wins and on days when we could only score 30 points.
Officials can be wrong, dumb, blind or just plain stupid. But they are one piece in a game with many parts. If you’re good, the refs shouldn’t be the ones determining the outcome of your game.
As bad calls go, Monday’s women’s Olympic soccer semifinal had a couple of massive discussion points. First was the delay of game call against Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod. Think “delay of game” is a term only applicable to American football? Well, that’s what most people watching seemed to think. Yes, that’s a call that is never made, and it was made at an exceedingly pivotal point in the game.
Next up was the handball call against Canada in the box on the next play (the U.S. got an indirect kick on the delay of game, and Megan Rapinoe‘s shot hit a Canadian player’s arm). No, this wasn’t technically a hand ball, but it did fall pretty well within the rules that say that — as unfortunate as it may be — you can’t be touching the ball with any parts of your upper appendages. This one was more bad luck than anything. But the damage was soon done — the U.S. tied the game and sent it to extra time, where Canada fell in the final minute.
Both calls had the Canadian players, fans and coaches irate. And after Abby Wambach said Tuesday that she may have given the ref a bit of a hand in knowing how to make such calls, the Canadians have all the reason in the world to be upset.
But getting irritated about poor calls misses the point of competition. And, although I know I’m inviting a hail of hatred and rebuttals from sports fans far and wide who will surely flood me with various bad calls throughout the years that have robbed cities and ruined futures (notice that I’ve jumped both feet into a first-person account in this one), I’m going to give the same argument I tried to give a teammate who once went 2-for-27 in one of our basketball games: Refs may factor into the game, but you decide it. And champions decide it in their favor.
Canada and the U.S. will remain our test case. While those two calls late in the second half will remain the focus of ire, the game was full of calls that could have been considered missed or biased. The contest was intensely physical and heated, and U.S. and Canadian players alike were tripping and pancaking eachother from the first whistle. Extra time was especially brutal, as both sides appeared to be dragging themselves to the finish line.
In a physical game like that, the first question is whether both sides got equal treatment, since the refs have to either call it tight both ways or loose both ways. This was a game when red and yellow cards could have been handed out half a dozen times (did anyone see the missed Melissa Tancredi foot on Carli Lloyd‘s head?).
I honestly don’t know who was better off on those basic foul calls, but I do know that a team is responsible to make the most of the situation before it. If you’re a finesse team and you’re getting bullied, the number of fouls cannot determine the outcome of the game — you need to pull it together and find another way to execute. So, if a team is getting fouled a lot with help from the refs, stop charging into players and expecting to get a call. Find a way to pass around or use whatever other strength you have.
Both Canada and the U.S. did that Monday, which was why the game was so good for so long. Christine Sinclair was ridiculous, taking advantage of the U.S. defense’s weaknesses but also playing a level above in scoring her hat trick. Rapinoe did the same. She was sent to the deck plenty of times, but she often won the ball back. She then scored twice by taking advantage of space in the Canadian defense.
In the regular back-and-forth, neither team let the referees determine their consistency in attacking, fighting for the ball and trying whatever tricks they could to get to the goal.
But what happens when Canada is left with the mess it had in the 80th minute, when the U.S. got an extra boost from the two controversial calls?
Sometimes life isn’t fair, and those who side with the Canadians on the officials’ decisions can be understood. But consider this: The U.S. wasn’t awarded a goal in either of those situations. Team USA had to win it. And while Canada was certainly put at a disadvantage, the players still had every opportunity to turn the disadvantage in their favor. They just didn’t get it done.
Isn’t that what competition is essentially about? About teams finding a way to make their advantages overcome everything that’s thrown against them? It’s not fair when underdogs take down marquee teams, and it’s not fair when a kickoff runback in a football game nets the same amount of points as an eight-minute, grind-it-out drive. But that’s sports. It’s unequal, it’s unfair, and it gives advantages to players and situations that normally wouldn’t excel. The art of all sports is finding a way to use the quirks to score points and win (soccer is the biggest example of the fickle hand that often undoes talent).
Sports is not about adding up quantitative numbers and skill levels — it’s about execution, and what can make teams with less in their favor execute better than teams with more. Talk about intangibles and heart and passion — this is why we love sports, because this is what takes sports from the stark, business page-like graphs of gains and losses and puts it into the sphere of human drama. Anything can happen. Anything can be overcome. Anyone can find a way to win.
Yes, Canada did what it should have done to put itself in place for a win, and yes, it had significant disadvantages sent its way. But ultimately, it did not have that extra piece that makes a champion.
But the beef is with the other side, right? Did the U.S. have what it took to win? Did those players earn it? Would Team USA have won without the little bit of help?
No one can know, obviously, but anecdotal evidence from the game shows that the U.S. was certainly pulling bunnies out of the hat all game long. The Americans came back from three deficits and consistently turned disadvantages in their favor.
And I’m drawn to point toward the U.S. track record throughout the past year, where the Americans have erased leads in ridiculous fashion and stolen wins from all corners. Perhaps no victory was more emphatic in that regard than last year’s comeback win over Brazil (in the quarterfinal of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup), when the U.S. scored in the 122nd minute while playing a man down. Team USA was playing without a defender due to what many considered an errant red card against Rachel Buehler. And the Americans were down a goal thanks to what many considered a horribly wrong call against U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo for coming off the goal line on a penalty kick — another one of those “I’ve never seen that called” plays.
But the U.S. found a way to win, through luck, karma, championship spirit, or whatever. More questioning may have happened if that game ended in a loss, but the U.S. wrote its own legacy with an incredible win.
“I’ve never seen [a six-second penalty] called without a warning,” Solo said after Monday’s decision. “That was interesting. But you never know what’s going to happen. In soccer, you see the most bizarre things. I always refer back to our game against Brazil. You never know what a ref will give you or take away. But you can’t use it as excuses.
“We gutted it out. We found a way to win.”
Yeah, it stinks. But I’m never going to let someone say a ref stole the game. If you play like little things may derail you from your goal of winning, little and big things will put in you in a spin. If you can’t be denied, the results may be quite different. I’d say the same thing if the U.S. lost with bad refs. Find a way to get it done, kids.
Canada got some crappy calls Monday. But it also got the chance to prove definitely where it belonged. It had 120 minutes to show it, and it came up short. The Canadians gave a great effort, but a championship effort — well, if we could bottle and quantify that, we probably wouldn’t need refs at all.