Blank Page: Did The Referees Follow The Rules?

N.C. State and North Carolina fans will argue for years over whether State tailback T.A. McLendon scored a touchdown at the close of Saturday's game. <B><I>Photo Courtesy of WRAL</b></i>

As most of the sporting world now knows, the head linesman, closest to the area of play, signaled a touchdown by McLendon. But following a signal to the contrary by line judge Rick Page, the points were removed from the scoreboard and the clock, which was stopped at 24 seconds to play at the time of the TD signal, was reset to 14 seconds. At the time the touchdown was nullified, the Wolfpack's extra point team was already moving into position. McLendon fumbled on the next play, ensuring a UNC victory.

While the call was ultimately crushing for the Wolfpack, the incident raises a broader issue than who won or lost: Did referee Jim Knight and his crew, especially Page, follow both NCAA rules and officiating protocol on the disputed play? The evidence leaves Knight and Page's judgment open to question.

The Rules: Who Makes The Call?
Per the ACC office, conference officiating crews follow NCAA rules. What do those rules say about Saturday's call?

First, who of the officials on the field could determine whether McLendon scored? The initial answer is "any of them," through NCAA Rule 11, Section 1 ("The Officials – Jurisdiction and Duties"). Article 3 of Section 1 states that "Each official is responsible for … determining scores, using proper signals, and mastering NCAA playing rules." Thus the head line judge, who initially signaled the touchdown, was clearly competent to make the call. But who then settles the dispute between an apparently senior official (closest to the area of play) who signals a score, and the more distant junior line judge holding otherwise?

The answer is Knight himself. NCAA Rule 11-2, Article 1, subsection (b.) states that "the referee is the sole authority for the score, and his decisions upon rules and other matters pertaining to the game are final." Thus, despite Knight's assertion in the media that there "was no overrule" of the senior line judge, Knight clearly is responsible for ignoring the senior official's call, close to the action, in favor of the junior official who was some distance away.

The NCAA rules, other than the grant of final say to the referee in matters of scoring, provide no guidance on the issue of whether a senior official should be overruled in favor of a junior, or whether it's better policy to follow the official who's closer to the action (barring that official making a request for clarification). The NCAA rules do state that referees must follow the "current Football Officials Manual published by the Collegiate Commissioners Association." An ACC spokeswoman, when asked if Saturday's officiating crew used that manual, replied that she had no information on that question.

Historical Precedent
At least one precedent from professional football supports following the head line judge's call. In a critical game between the New York Jets and the Seattle Seahawks, the Jets won when quarterback Vinny Testaverde lunged for the goal line and head linesman Earnie Frantz immediately signaled a touchdown. Referee Phil Luckett cited the head linesman's prompt call as decisive. "He called it right away and signaled … there was a pileup, but the head linesman had already called a touchdown for the ball breaking the plane [of the goal line]."

While one incident from one professional football game doesn't cast the issue in stone, an experienced NFL referee was faced with a similar (if not identical) decision in a crucial situation – and followed the decision of his head line judge.

Officiating Protocol
What of the question of officiating "zones" and protocol? Barring the general authority already referenced, the NCAA rules provide little support for linesman Page overruling the head line judge. NCAA Rule 11, Section 5, gives some basic responsibilities to the line judge, mostly to do with the neutral zone and supervising the game clock operator. The rules (specifically subsection "e.") do give the line judge the determination of "legality of play around the ball," but only on his side of the field, and don't provide for substituting his judgment for that of the more senior official closest to the area of play.

In short, there appears to be no clear authority or implied duty on Page's part to overrule the decision of the head line judge – in fact, his specific duties suggest the opposite, that he had inferior jurisdiction over the play.

When looking at the protocol practiced by officials generally, Knight's decision reads even more oddly. Review of various officiating websites and forums shows a strong consensus that only the "covering official" should declare the ball down and blow the whistle to end the play. From the Officiating.com website forum, used for discussion by practicing referees:

Only the covering official should sound his or her whistle after seeing the ball carrier downed. Now, that doesn't mean we won't be hearing other whistles after the action stops. Many times if an official has called a penalty, he'll blast the whistle to get the chain gang's and the R's attention. Also, if there's a chicken fight going on, a couple of blasts may help stop the action. But, ONLY the covering official should sound the whistle to signal the ball carrier downed. No official should "echo" that whistle.

On Saturday, there was no penalty, and the senior official closest to the call, with jurisdiction over the call, signaled a touchdown. Yet the non-covering official determined the outcome. What appears to be an officiating maxim – call in your zone – was ignored not only by Page, but by Knight, an official with over 20 years of officiating experience.

Why? There's no evidence that the head linesman had anything but a clear and unobstructed view of the play. His signal of a touchdown was clear and unambiguous. Again, officiating protocol and common sense seem to call for supporting the head linesman in this situation, as he neither asked for clarification nor reported that his view was obstructed.

A Questionable Record
Virtually all referees can point to a call they missed, and certainly fans can list a myriad of officiating complaints, some valid and some otherwise. But both Knight and, by implication, Page, were formally cited for poor performance even before Saturday's game.

On almost the same date in 1999 as Saturday's State-Carolina contest, Knight and his crew, including Page, were suspended by the Atlantic Coast Conference for multiple errors during the N.C. State-Clemson game, errors that harmed both clubs and were severe enough to cause then Wolfpack coach Mike O'Cain to "lose his composure" over the miscues. ACC Commissioner John Swofford said at the time that "our review of the situation involving penalties during the Clemson-N.C. State game, leaves no doubt that the officials erred in their application during the course of the contest."

Moreover, observers point to other questionable calls involving Page during the game, including clock-management miscues - Page was responsible, per NCAA Rule 11, Section 5, Article 1 "c." for "timing the game and supervising the clock operator." These clock management questions culminated in the inexplicable removal of ten seconds from the game clock following the McLendon touchdown's nullification. And, of course, there is the reversal of the touchdown call itself, apparently unprecedented in ACC history under these circumstances barring some kind of late flag call – in which, again, Page was prominent.

Good Faith – Or Incompetence?
Opposing fans and persons of good will disagree over officiating as long as football is played. The NCAA itself emphasizes, rightly, that "when an official imposes a penalty or makes a decision, he simply is doing his duty as he sees it." The most casual fans know that officiating is a tough job, open to criticism from all quarters.

Still, the ACC has a duty to supervise its officials and to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that games are officiated in a competent, unbiased, and good faith manner. Page, and perhaps to a lesser extent Knight, issued very questionable decisions at game's end on Saturday, under both NCAA rules and what appear to be officiating protocol and common sense.

While it's unwarranted to say that one call or another "cost" a team the game, it is fair to say that Saturday's officiating, especially given past mistakes by crews involving Knight and Page, deserves serious review by ACC officials. Whether questionable calls benefit the Tar Heels, the Wolfpack, or another conference team, competence and fairness should – and must – be a continual ACC concern.


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