When I was a lad, I played a lot of soccer. Although I was a physical player, I stayed within the rules and generally played pretty clean. Generally.
In a certain match, however, I really got away with one. We were tied in a very even contest, and the opposing team was about to score. My goalie had moved out to play the ball, so I was on the goal line trying to cover for him. The other team shot a loping ball headed high into the net. Our goalie was beat, and there was no way I had a play with my feet, head, or body.
Without even thinking, I grabbed the ball with my hand and hurled it out of danger (for non-soccer fans, this is pretty illegal). One of my teammates cleared it upfield.
The other team was outraged, but they knew the swift sword of justice would see me ejected and them awarded a penalty kick. Their outrage grew to frothing fury, however, when they realized that the referee somehow hadn’t seen what I had done. He completely missed the call that everyone on both teams, everyone in the stands, and probably most people in the city had seen. It was an unfathomable injustice.
I didn’t mean to cheat – it was just an automatic response to do anything to stop the other team scoring. But you would have thought I had murdered someone by the other team’s reaction. It didn’t help their mood when we rallied and won the game by a single goal. My otherwise undistinguished athletic career was made special by being part of the worst blown call in the history of sports.
Until this happened:
When dirty players go to sleep at night, they dream of this play. It happened two weeks ago in the NFC Championship game.
The Rams’ defensive back, Nickell Robey-Coleman, destroyed the Saints’ receiver before the ball got even close. When you look up “pass interference” in the dictionary, it now shows this play. Had pass interference been called, the Saints would have had a first down and (through some nuances we need not discuss) easily won the game and advanced in the playoffs. But interference wasn’t called, the Rams got the ball back, and in a thrilling overtime finish, beat the Saints. The game was literally decided by this one horribly blown call.
Fans were livid. Many called for the entire game to be replayed. Some even said the NFL Commissioner should disregard the outcome and simply award the win – and a berth to the Super Bowl – to the Saints. Robey-Coleman received countless death threats on social media. (Sidebar – death threats on social media? Seriously? Back in my day, a death threat took real commitment. You had to find their number and call them, or figure out an address and buy a stamp. Kids nowadays.)
Robey-Coleman felt horrible to have caused this miscarriage of justice, and he offered a heartfelt apology and true repentance (per Bleacher Report):
\”I put his ass on a Waffle House frying pan! It was football! If you don\’t know the sport, well, then, news flash: We hit people. It\’s the NFL. And sometimes, we\’d rather take a flag and hit somebody than somebody catch and score on us.\”
I certainly agree it was a bad penalty, and I feel sorry for the Saints. I even think Robey-Coleman might want to hone his apology skills.
But I can’t treat this outcome as a national crisis, and I really don’t think Robey-Coleman deserves anyone’s ire. In times like these, we must remember the immortal words of the poet and scholar Ice-T:
“Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
Don’t Hate the Player
Robey-Coleman was beat on this play. If he hadn’t committed the penalty, the Saints would have scored a touchdown and won the game. Perhaps he should have stopped, bowed in defeat, and said, “Good show, old chap!” After all, trying to catch up and make a play was almost certain to fail.
But “almost certain to fail” is the same as “a tiny chance to succeed”. I can imagine Robey-Coleman quickly playing the odds in his head: if I do nothing, he’s guaranteed to score; if I go try to blow up the play (or better stated, “put his ass on a Waffle House frying pan”), there’s a chance that I time it right when the ball arrives for a legal hit, and there’s even a laughably small chance that I commit a penalty and don’t get flagged for it. Remember, Robey-Coleman couldn’t even see the ball, so he was just taking a flyer with his entire season on the line.
Taking a flyer when the alternative is a guaranteed loss is a great decision. And sometimes it pays off. We don’t have to like the fact that he got away with such a bad penalty, but he was just playing the game and doing his job. I can empathize with his desperation because I’ve been there myself.
In our work and throughout our lives, sometimes people will get lucky breaks at our expense. But that doesn’t mean we should hate the player. Let’s listen to Ice-T and turn our attention to the game itself.
Don’t Even Hate the Game
Robey-Coleman concedes he should have been flagged on the play. But it’s not his job to police penalties. Let’s instead look at the referees and the game itself. How can the refs have missed such an easy call, and how can the NFL allow a game to be decided this way?
Well, refs are human. And humans make mistakes. This may have been a bad one, and perhaps the official in question will never work a big game again. But expecting perfection from people is unrealistic – in football or anything else.
OK then, why don’t we fix things after the fact? A video review clearly shows it was a penalty. The problem is that the NFL has never allowed pass interference to be called on review (though this play may change that…). They were attempting to balance fair play with game length. They’ve trusted the refs to do a good job, but that has left teams and fans dangerously exposed to the dire risk of – gasp – a bad call. How could they?
If we’re going to hate anything, let’s hate this game where the rules are so complex and we haven’t deployed the technology and resources to ensure that every play in every game is called perfectly and no one ever makes a mistake. Every single action on the field should be covered by 10 different camera angles, and we’ll invest the time it takes to ensure every call is always right. It’s simply a matter of justice.
Let’s say you’re walking in a store and someone bumps into you. Not only do they not apologize, they give you an angry look! Like it’s your fault!! The outrage!!! This grave insult shall not go unanswered. There will be an inquiry. Video surveillance will be reviewed. Juries will be summoned. Punishments shall be levied. And lessons will most certainly be learned…or maybe you could shrug it off and just keep going, ‘cause you’ve got better things to do with your time.
A demand for perfection and “justice” in every possible human interaction – or every play on a football field – is a colossal waste of time. Some things we can just let slide and acknowledge we live in an imperfect world and play imperfect games.
If the NFL invests the resources – and my time – to get everything perfect in all games, I’m going to stop watching because the games will take about six hours. I’d rather go play a game at the playground where the rules – to the extent they exist at all – are pretty fuzzy.
We don’t need to hate the game because it’s less than perfect and sometimes mistakes get made. A little random noise makes it more exciting. And it is, after all, just a game.
Just Play the Game
If we get used to having perfect justice delivered in parts of our lives – like our professional sports – we’re going to be woefully unprepared for the rest of life. Because I’ve got breaking news for you: life isn’t always fair.
Maybe a much less deserving person will beat you out for a promotion. Maybe the girl or guy you like will choose someone way less cool than you. Or maybe you’re going to get laid out on a Waffle House frying pan and there’ll be no flag. It won’t be nice, but we need to remember that a lot of the time (and yes, I’m including the NFC Championship game, Saints fans), it’s for pretty small stakes. Plus, it’s worth remembering that bad breaks go both ways.
I’d love to see perfect justice in all things at all times, but I’d also love to see some resiliency – and a little less outrage – when it doesn’t happen. Don’t hate the player. Don’t even hate the game. Just play the game, have some fun, and keep things in perspective.