SAVE THE ZEBRAS
The NFL should take the gag off its oft-embattled referees
NFL referee Phil Luckett is apparently destined to be in the
middle of things. It was Luckett who last season was accused of
screwing up the call by Steeler Jerome Bettis on an overtime coin
flip. Ten days later it was Luckett who was the crew chief when
his head linesman blew a goal line call that gave Vinny
Testaverde's Jets a bogus touchdown against the Seahawks. That
led to the return of instant replay. So, two weeks ago, there
again was Luckett--this time upholding, with the aid of video, his
new head linesman's call on the last-gasp lateral that gave the
Titans a playoff victory over the Bills.
Still, Luckett must remain, like almost all sports officials, a
cipher. The NFL, like the NBA and the NCAA, maintains a strict
gag rule on referees. Officials know that in a crunch the league
will hang them out to dry, but to keep their jobs they must
remain loyal, silent apparatchiks. For example, replays showed
that when Bettis made his infamous coin call, he said something
like, "Heads, uh...tails." Luckett correctly accepted the first
call--and became a laughingstock. But a source who heard the tape
of NFL officiating chief Jerry Seeman's review meeting the week
after the Bettis episode reports that Seeman said of Luckett's
decision, "Men, this was handled properly." Typically, neither
Seeman nor any other NFL official publicly backed up Luckett.
There's a platitude that an official is doing his job when he's
unnoticed. But when everybody else has the right of free
speech--and the right to criticize--muzzling officials is unfair
and downright cruel. After Indiana coach Bob Knight vilified Ted
Valentine, a respected veteran college basketball referee, last
season, Valentine finally broke down and told his side of the
story to Referee magazine. The result: Valentine has been taken
off all Big Ten games, perhaps in perpetuity. You've got to hand
it to baseball: That game may have disputes with its umpires, but
it treats them as grown-ups and allows them to talk to the press.
We're not permitted to speak to Phil Luckett, but our sources
whisper that he's even-tempered, sturdy, religious; a good man.
It would be right--and above all, decent--of the NFL to support
this good soldier by naming him as the Super Bowl ref. Then all
American sports organizations should declare their trust in the
officials who run their games by giving them the right of free
speech. --Frank Deford
Bobby Phills's death is the latest in a string of North Carolina
Few people were happier to see the dawn of the new year than
fans in North Carolina. Throughout 1999, sports pages there were
dominated by tales of tragedies and turmoil.
Judging by the early returns, however, 2000 isn't looking any
better. On Jan. 12, Hornets swingman Bobby Phills (right), one of
the NBA's most respected players, was killed when his black
Porsche convertible crashed as he drove home from practice.
Police believe Phills was drag-racing with teammate David Wesley,
who was driving his white Porsche despite a suspended license. As
of Monday, Wesley had yet to speak to investigators.
Phills entered Southern University in 1987 as a 6'3" center and
left as a 6'5" shooting guard. He was picked by the Bucks in the
second round in '91, but his college coach, Ben Jobe, a former
NBA assistant who knew about life in the league, advised Phills
to pursue a career in veterinary medicine, his major at Southern.
"It's far more important than hitting a jump shot," Jobe said.
But Phills stuck with hoops and eventually became one of the
league's top defenders and a capable scorer--all while maintaining
his poise and dignity. "He could have been one of the foremost
black leaders in the country," Jobe said last Thursday. "He had
the brainpower. He had the great family background. He had
Among the mourners at a memorial service for Phills last Friday
was Charlotte guard Eldridge Recasner, making his first public
appearance since suffering a broken shoulder and a collapsed lung
in an October car accident. That wreck occurred when teammate
Derrick Coleman, who was charged with driving under the
influence, tried to turn in front of an oncoming truck. Recasner,
who was in the passenger seat, won't play again until at least
late this month.
One of the speakers at Phills's service was Hornets owner George
Shinn, an outspoken born-again Christian, author of Good Morning,
Lord! and the defendant in an ugly sexual assault civil suit that
dragged on from February '98 to December '99. Shinn won the case.
Two weeks later accuser Leslie Price's husband, Jeff, killed
himself with a shotgun.
Not every unseemly or unfortunate incident has involved the
--On May 1 three spectators at an IRL race at Lowe's Motor
Speedway in Charlotte were killed when debris from a crash flew
into the stands.
--Two days later Hurricanes defenseman Steve Chiasson was killed
in a one-car accident. His blood-alcohol content was three times
the legal limit.
--On Dec. 15 Panthers receiver Rae Carruth was charged with
orchestrating the murder of his pregnant girlfriend.
The Hornets returned to action last Saturday, losing to the
Knicks in the first step of what figures to be a long and
difficult grieving process. "It's important for the guys to
understand that he's gone on to a better place," Charlotte coach
Paul Silas said after the service for Phills. "But we're still
here, we still have responsibilities to deal with, and we've got
to move on."
COACHING IN DALLAS
Beware of owners brandishing playbooks. "See, it's all here,"
said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, plopping down on a sofa in his
Minneapolis hotel suite on Jan. 8, the day before his NFC
wild-carders took on the Vikings in the first round of the
playoffs. "Our whole game plan, with all possible options and
contingencies. I'll be holding this during the game."
Jones was more than willing to point out every nuance, every X
and O, in coach Chan Gailey's playbook. Phones went unanswered,
pleasantries with family members were cut short, crudites on the
buffet table went uneaten. Jones just wanted to talk offense. Two
hours later he would attend Dallas's offensive meeting, 20 hours
later his Cowboys would be walking off the Metrodome carpet after
a 27-10 loss, and 50 hours later he would can Gailey, the third
Dallas coach since the '93 season to get Jonesed.
In a November interview Jones praised Gailey's imaginative
football mind, but that was before Michael Irvin's
career-threatening neck injury, before Gailey's play-calling got
conservative, before Troy Aikman became disenchanted with the
offense. As an owner, Jones might be expected to back his coach
in a dispute with the quarterback. But as a football man--which is
what Jones considers himself--he sided with Aikman. "Chan hasn't
gotten our opponents to honor the passing game," Jones said that
day in Minneapolis. "We haven't maximized Troy's passing
abilities. You'll see changes tomorrow." But once the game
started, balls were dropped, routes were mistimed and the
offense, as usual, lacked fluidity.
It's a mistake to consider Jones a know-nothing meddler. He's
more dangerous: a know-something meddler, a man who keeps up with
offensive trends by talking to a handful of advisers (such as
Cowboys consultant and Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield),
attending offensive meetings and keeping his ears open at NFL
competition committee sessions. But he doesn't know as much as a
coach does, and he has stretched himself still thinner by acting
as general manager--a job at which he is failing miserably. Since
Jimmy Johnson left in 1994, only two Dallas draft choices have
made the Pro Bowl.
Will Jones now go after an offensive expert (such as Rams
coordinator Mike Martz) who may not want to listen to him or a
defensive guy (such as Dallas coordinator Dave Campo) he can try
to intimidate? Whoever it is should know this: If you come to
coach in Big D, you'll be sharing the headphones with the man who
signs your paycheck. --Jack McCallum
TYSON IN ENGLAND
Britannia Waives the Rules
Last week London's The New Nation caused an uproar when it
questioned whether Mike Tyson, who spent three years in an
Indiana prison for rape, should be allowed into the United
Kingdom for a Jan. 29 fight with British ex-con Julius Francis.
Tyson's past had landed him on the British Immigration Service's
so-called Suspect Index, a list of some 500,000 people who aren't
welcome in the U.K., which has a regulation barring entry to
anyone convicted of a crime that carries a prison sentence of a
year or more. Exceptions are to be made only on "strong,
Glenda Jackson, the only Member of Parliament with a best actress
Oscar, said the country "shouldn't bend the rules for him ...
simply because he's a celebrity. I can see no grounds for
compassion whatsoever." But Home Secretary Jack Straw could,
thanks to a 67-page document submitted by fight promoter Frank
Warren, whose report included appeals from vendors at the
Manchester arena staging the bout and a poignant plea from
Francis: "I have spent time in prison and turned myself around in
the only way I know how, by hard work and dedication to my career
in boxing. I now have a golden opportunity to clear my backlog of
debts and a chance to buy a home for my girlfriend and newly born
Last Thursday, Straw chose to let Tyson in, citing "the effect on
business in the Manchester area and the inconvenience and
disappointment of the many thousands of members of the public who
have purchased tickets for the fight." A friendly crowd of 400
met the Concorde carrying Tyson at Heathrow on Sunday, but the
battle wasn't over until Monday, when a judge turned down an
appeal by the London-based group Justice for Women, which had
sought to overturn Straw's decision. Said its spokesperson Julie
Bindel, "We already have enough rapists in this country."
He put championship rings on the fingers of Luc Longley, Will
Perdue and even Dennis Hopson. Now Michael Jordan seems ready to
attempt more magic tricks. If a deal goes through making him a
Wizards part owner and their basketball boss, MJ will have his
beringed hands full. Can the NBA's greatest miracle worker make
Washington's woes disappear? His toughest task may be resisting
the urge to doff his general manager's robes and suit up himself.
Decades in which jockey Ray York, 66, has had a mount, after
finishing 10th on Culebra at Santa Anita last week.
Fee The Mirror tabloid paid to put its logo on the soles of
Julius Francis's shoes for his fight with Mike Tyson.
Fans whose heads Celtics center Vitaly (the Ukrainian Cranium)
Potapenko shaved as a promotion.
City council vote in Bradenton, Fla., to honor Florida State
wideout and admitted petty thief Peter Warrick.
Annual subsidy the government of Canada reportedly plans to
distribute to the country's six NHL teams.
Zeljko Raznjatovic, a.k.a. Arkan, alleged Serbian war criminal
turned soccer impresario [Scorecard, April 19], in a Belgrade
hotel lobby. The onetime leader of the Tigers, a notorious
paramilitary unit accused of committing war crimes in Bosnia,
owned the soccer club Obilic, currently atop the Yugoslav first
Rapper Master P's No Limits sports agency, by the Clippers' Derek
Anderson, the Hornets' Ricky Davis and the Nuggets' Ron Mercer.
Davis said he was turned off by P's pursuit of a pro basketball
career and by the lousy contract No Limits negotiated for the
Saints' Ricky Williams.
Iranian soccer players and their U.S. counterparts. The two
national teams played to a 1-1 tie in a Rose Bowl friendly
despite a U.S.-based Muslim group's protests over Budweiser
ads on the field.
Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, frolicking on a Kauai beach. Their
obvious zeal for each other fueled rumors of a secret marriage.
Agents for the two could not be reached.
Ohio State sports communications director Gerry Emig, after a
Columbus radio station discovered this description of famous
alum Richard Lewis in the Buckeyes' basketball media guide:
"Actor, Writer, Comedian, Drunk."
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
The father of a youth league baseball player sued his son's coach
for $2,000, claiming that bad coaching cost the boy a trip to a
tournament in Florida.
officials is unfair and even cruel.
On NFL players in trouble with the law: "Imagine how bad it would
be if football didn't build character."