Big 12 flags free speech except when it doesn't

TMG Maven

By Wendell Barnhouse, TMG Special Contributor

There are seemingly hundreds of hot topics daily that beg consumption. As Ferris Bueller noted, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It’s not unlike drinking from a full-blast firehose.

Wednesday brought a news nugget that neatly tied together some recent headlines - the first amendment/freedom of speech (NBA-China), hypocrisy (LeBron James-China-first amendment) and football officiating (the NFL Monday night game and the thus-far season-long incompetence of the zebras).

The Big 12 Conference announced a public reprimand and a $25,000 fine for Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt. His transgression was issuing a four-paragraph statement about an officiating mistake (admitted to by a Big 12 representative) in overtime that might have cost the Red Raiders a victory at Baylor Saturday.

(By the way, Hocutt is one of the 10 highest-paid ADs in the country with a salary of $1.5 million. Kent Hance, a six-year member of the Texas legislature and former Texas Tech chancellor, is raising money to pay the fine. The money isn’t an issue)

Baylor’s first possession in overtime should have ended when Texas Tech recovered a fumble when the Bears’ center shotgun-snapped the ball off his butt. The Big 12 officiating crew, though, called it an illegal snap and whistled the play dead. No fumble. No recovery. Baylor, of course, won in double OT. (Baylor fans also point out the zebras missed a call that would have resulted on a Texas Tech safety during regulation.)

Sunday Hocutt received an email from Big 12 Executive Associate Commissioner Ed Stewart, who oversees football. Stewart said that Greg Burks, the conference’s coordinator of football officials, had reviewed the play and determined the decision to blow the play dead was incorrect.

Based on Stewart’s email and knowing that he had a fan base ready to storm the conference office with pitchforks and torches, Hocutt issued a statement Monday to explain and mollify. He also was attempting to tie off the situation as the local paper had made a Freedom of Information Act request regarding any communication with the Big 12. Stewart’s email would have eventually been made public.

(Side comment: Whatever happened to phone calls?)

A few hours after Hocutt’s statement, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby contacted Hocutt to warn him of impending sanctions. Hocutt responded with a respectful email that explained how he had not questioned the call or complained about the officials. Rules are rules, though.

“The Big 12 Conference members have developed policies governing the officiating of our contests,” Bowlsby said in the statement announcing Hocutt’s punshment. “It is vital that senior administration officials, especially the directors of athletics, adhere explicitly to these policies. It is very difficult to balance support for an institution’s teams while fully complying with the imperative created by schools acting together to manage athletics competition.”

In other words, shut your damn mouth and follow the rules.

Officiating football at the college and professional levels has reached it’s impossible to meet the standards and expectations. Rules, and application of those rules, are determined by committees whose majorities are composed of men who have never thrown a flag.

Add in instant replay reviews by Big Brother plus weekly evaluations where every play is reviewed from several angles to provide officials’ grades and it’s a job no sane person would want. The fact that over 95 percent of calls are correct is overwhelmed by the five percent that are incorrect, or the one percent missed calls that might determine an outcome.

A major problem, as Your Veteran Scribe sees it, is transparency and accountability. Coaches get fired and players get benched for mistakes or poor performances. Those two officials who missed the obvious DPI in last season’s Saints-Rams playoff game? How and why are they still NFL officials? If the NFL had rightly fired them for incompetence, at least fans could see they were held accountable for an egregious error.

Occasionally and rarely at the college level, an officiating crew might be suspended. If that happens, it’s even more rare that a public acknowledgement is made. Officiating mistakes don’t require a public flogging, but the knowledge that a conference holds its officials accountable for mistakes would help appease fans.

If the Big 12 was going to acknowledge the mistake (as Stewart did with Hocutt), why not issue a public statement like the email Stewart sent Hocutt? Instead of “tying it off” there, statements led to statements led to a reprimand and fine.

Pro tip: Don’t make a one-day story a three- or four-day story.

Earlier Saturday, 90 miles up the road, the Red River Rivalry got rowdy before kickoff. Texas and Oklahoma players, as geeked-up college athletes do before these types of blood matches, had a pre-game melee. The Big 12 crew, per rule, assessed an unsportsmanlike penalty for every player on both teams.

Two such penalties on a player result in an ejection. So, before toe had met leather, an officiating decision had been made that could have impacted the following 60 minutes. Those are the rules, as written. During the game, no unsportsmanlike penalties were called, thus no ejections.

Mike Defee – who has gained fame as the “swole” ref because of his muscular biceps – was the referee in charge of the Big 12 crew. Before the coin toss, his admonition to the team captains was heard in the Cotton Bowl. “We’re going to play this game with sportsmanship. Are we clear?”

(Tom Cruise voice.) Crystal.

The media can request that a pool reporter be allowed to ask the referee for clarifications/explanations. Typically, that involves the ref citing/quoting the rule and why it applied to the decision. Rarely do the answers go beyond that. After the game, a pool reporter met with Defee. He went beyond citing the case law.

“They both came together and started jawing and started pushing,” Defee said. “I’m not sure there weren’t punches thrown. I got hit a couple of times. My head linesman got hit. It was just clear cut because I had warned both coaches prior to the start of the game about how we were going to manage pregame and that we wanted to get this game started without incident. Both sides were dually warned.”

Asked about his statement before the coin toss, he said this:

“I guess disappointment to a certain extent. We’ve got two of the best teams in the country, let alone the Big 12 Conference. This is the 115th playing of this great game and to have that kind of thing happen is disappointing. The primary responsibility of the officials is two-fold outside of just playing the rules. One is player safety and two is the integrity of the game. What happened out there is an embarrassment to everyone.”

Hmmmm. Free speech for a referee, a gag rule for an athletic director?

YVS emailed these questions: “Calling that conduct “embarrassing” is correct, but doesn’t that go beyond the prescribed rules? Didn’t Defee overstep his duties by stating his opinion instead of just the typical explanation of the rule and how it was applied?”

Bob Burda, Big 12 senior associate commissioner for communications, answered: “The Big 12 Handbook, which includes Conference Rules and Bylaws, is applicable to member institutions. Game officials are independent contractors and do not fall under the purview of the Handbook.”

“You see, your honor, we didn’t rob the bank. We just hired the men who did. They’re independent contractors and do not fall under our purview.”

Trust me, the rules in that Big 12 Handbook are like any other conference’s rules. They’ve been vetted by lawyers who bill $1,000 an hour to apply and/or remove responsibility and culpability, as needed.

An argument could be made that The Swole Ref flexed his personal opinions about an officiating decision. Hocutt – in a most reasonable and respectful manner – tried to calm his fan base but colored outside the lines, earning a public reprimand and a fine (both of which, in this situation, were totally worth it).

Expressing “disappointment” and “embarrassment” should be left to, oh, maybe fans of Texas Tech.


TMG Maven