Can’t Win for Losing

Monday, November 17th, 2008, 6:21 pm

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the San Diego Chargers 11-10 yesterday–good. It was the first 11-10 game in NFL history–interesting. And hardly anyone is talking about either of those tidbits.

That’s because the big story was the last play of the game, and what did (and didn’t) happen. The Chargers tried one of those Cal-vs-Stanford multi-lateral desperation plays and it didn’t work out. Troy Polamalu knocked down one of the attempted laterals, grabbed the pigskin, and raced to the endzone. Good bye unique 11-10 score, hello still funky 18-10 tally.

Of course by now you’ve heard what happened. The officials reviewed the play, even though there was no real need to review it because nothing controversial happened and besides, the game was ovah. But inside of two minutes the officials are the ones who call for review so, what the hell, the reviewed it. The funny part was watching Norv Turner on the sideline getting more and more ticked off because he wanted to get off the field (and find out if this loss was the one that cost him his job). The refs came out and announced…that the touchdown was good. OK, fine, life goes on.

Except…that the refs changed their mind a third time. Now they were saying there was an illegal forward pass, and the second the ball hit the ground the play was officially dead. Take the points off the board, final score 11-10. As my friends and I were watching this all unfold we were half-hoping the score would stay 11-10 just to say that we’d watched an insignificant bit of history.

Of course I didn’t know that the Steelers came into the game favored by four or five points, and that the ref’s decision to overturn a touchdown they’d awarded twice would cost everyone who bet on the Steelers their money. How much did that blown call cost bettors? One thing I read said there was $100 million bet on the game, with about 2/3 of it on the Black-and-Gold. So, to paraphrase Johnny Caspar from Miller’s Crossing, “Part of the payoff that should be ridin’ on Steeler fans’ hips is ridin’ on someone else’s”.

I’m sure the NFL is thrilled to have their product talked about in the context of Vegas and gambling and hundred-million dollar swings. This isn’t like Spygate where Roger Goodell collected the evidence and quickly and quietly destroyed it–this all happened on the field, in front of millions of witnesses. The really odd thing is that this was NOT a difficult call for the refs. There was nothing about it that was open for interpretation or visually hard to judge. Philip Rivers passed to LaDanian Tomlinson across the middle and LT quickly lateraled the ball. There was another attempted lateral, obviously backwards, and Polamalu broke it up and ran in for the score. There was no “illegal forward pass”–none of the passes went forward. In addition, even if one of the laterals WAS forward, the Steelers still could’ve recovered the ball and ran it in. The refs got it right on the field, got it right on the reply…and then suddenly decided to change their minds.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the refs were deliberately trying to game the game because of the point spread. This seems to be a simple case of basic incompetence to me (and anyone who saw the phantom pass interference call on Ike Taylor would agree with my diagnosis). But this little brouhaha shows the hypocrisy of the NFL and their broadcast partners. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms tiptoed around the subject, as did Bob Costas on NBC’s Sunday night show, giving fans a wink and a nod by saying “others cared for other reasons” about the blown call. During ESPN’s First and Ten show one of the panelists said that the NFL would put up a wall of silence and refuse to even acknowledge the issue because the NFL would look really stupid saying that they were shocked, SHOCKED, to find that gambling was going on in here. Of course, ESPN publishes the betting lines on their website, they show the Vegas lines on their NFL Countdown show, just about every show features their experts picking who they think is going to win, etc etc.

Not only those who bet on the Steelers lose tens of millions, the blown call also affected fantasy football leagues around the nation. Of course this is gambling that the NFL can get behind, because fantasy football is LEGAL. Remember that fantasy carve-out in the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act? Oh, and who was an ardent supporter of the UIGEA? Why, the National Football League, of course! In fact, who was the Bush Administration’s point man on the newly-implemented UIGEA regulations? A gentleman named William Wichterman, who as late as this past March was a registered lobbyist for…wait for it…the National Football League! No conflict of interest there!!

So you have incompetence, rank hypocrisy, double-dealing, a willingness to ignore reality…in other words, business as usual when it comes to Americans’ rights to gamble online as they see fit.

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