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Vindication, yes - but redress? Chances might be better than you think

Holy cow. This is the story that just won't go away.

And I'm starting to think that might be a really, really good thing.

This isn't exactly Woodward and Bernstein, but intrepid Seattle Times reporter Bud Withers continues to demonstrate why, in this world of blogging and "citizen journalism," we still need highly trained, highly qualified, full time, paid, working journalists to keep an eye on our institutions. He's still tracking the Oregon technical foul story, and I have to admit: I'm nearly shocked by this latest turn.

To recap, the referees defended their call in the immediate aftermath of the game, and the Pac-10 then did the same (calling it unfortunate but a judgment call). That's hardly surprising, given the way conferences tend to defend their officials to the death -- after all, they're the ones who have to work with these guys. For as bad as we think officials are sometimes, trust me: If they thought there were better alternatives out there, they'd be employed. So they do their best to make what they've got the very best it can be, and they apparently think that going to bat for their guys is the best way to help them keep their confidence, which is an essential part of officiating.

Of course, we promptly ripped the decision apart, using video evidence and the NCAA's own rulebook. Our main point? This absolutely, positively, was not a judgment call -- it was a misapplication of the rules. I honestly figured that would be the end of it. They defend an unconscionable decision, we indignantly and futilely beat it to death, and that's that. Oregon keeps their undeserved win, and we're left to wonder, "What if?"

But there are some cracks developing in the dam -- cracks which have me seriously wondering whether there might actually be a chance, however small, to achieve a heretofore unthinkable outcome: Getting this thing reversed.

First came Pac-10 coordinator of officials Bill McCabe's admission that NCAA supervisor of officials John Adams said, "We don't want our games to end this way. It's not good for college basketball." That raised a fair number of eyebrows. (He later clarified his meaning, saying that he merely meant that it's not good for games to be decided by technical fouls; he has no problem with officials exercising their judgment to the best of their ability, which he said is what happened. More on that later.)

In that same story, McCabe said the likely outcome of this was that officials were likely to be told that a violation should only be called when the team is ready to inbound or the official has started his five-second count.

The implication was clear: This was a judgment call, but the judgment was poor. And even though the judgment was poor, there's virtually nothing that can be done about a judgment call. It's the same sort of thing if a guy, I don't know, takes about six steps on his way to the rim for a game-winning shot and no violation is called.

End of story, right?

Not so fast. Then came an e-mail from Adams to one of our readers, CanyonCoug, which stated in part:

(I)t was the officiating crew’s judgment that the players and fan on the floor were going to impede OR’s opportunity to inbound the ball.

Same implication: Poor judgment, but judgment call nonetheless. Nothing to be done.

However, this response might be more significant than you think, in that it introduced a brand new bit of ammunition with regards to the Cougs' argument.

The key phrase here is "going to impede." There is nothing in the NCAA rule book which provides for "going to impede" as the minimum threshold for a technical foul. The minimum threshold is that it actually does impede Oregon's ability to inbound the ball. Essentially, we now have -- on the record -- an admission from the highest supervisor of referees in the NCAA that Oregon was not impeded from inbounding the ball, as claimed immediately by the game officials and subsequently confirmed by the Pac-10.

Then came today's story from Withers, which I consider nothing less than a bombshell.

Remember how we said from the very beginning that this wasn't a judgment call at all, that it was actually a misapplication of the applicable rules? Turns out, Ed Bilik, the guy the NCAA pays to be in charge of its rules, agrees with us, and not the Pac-10:

Referring to the end-of-overtime chaos that turned an apparent WSU victory into an Oregon win, Bilik said, "The ball was never even taken out of bounds. So how could it interfere with continuous play? Basically, there was no interference in terms of the ball being put into play."

Bilik felt so strongly about this, he actually issued a reminder to officials on how to correctly apply the rules at the end of a game in the event a player leaves the bench or a fan ends up on the court. (The underlining is their formatting, not ours.)

When a delay by a jubilant follower(s) or bench personnel before player activity has been terminated does not prevent the ball from being put in play promptly or does not interfere with continuous play, the delay shall be ignored, order shall be restored and play shall be resumed.

This is beyond enormous. Why? Because he now seems to be saying this was not a judgment call. He has said, on the record with Withers, that the ball was never taken out of bounds. And he has now said, on the record through the NCAA website, that -- according to the rules -- no violation occurs unless the team is ready to inbound the ball (continuous play).

You might already see where I'm going with this. If it wasn't a judgment call -- if it was indeed a misapplication of the rules -- this is something which can now be overturned on appeal.

Let that sink in for a second.

If I'm Jim Sterk and Ken Bone this morning, I'm going absolutely bat-bleep crazy over this. I'm on the phone with Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott faster than you can say, "See! I told you they blew the call!" And I'm now filing an official rules appeal on the grounds that these officials didn't just blow a judgment call -- they blew a rule.

Now, I can't find anywhere online where the procedure for a rules appeal in the NCAA is outlined. But the basics of any appeal in any sport are as follows: If indeed a team was wronged by the misapplication of a rule, that team is entitled to redress -- up to and including finishing the game under the conditions that should have been applied in the first place. Based off of how we know appeals in other sports are generally handled, we can make some educated assumptions about how the examination of this play might go down.

The first step in any appeal is determining whether a rule was even misapplied. The Cougs now have what sure as heck seems like that admission.

The next step is determining what redress, if any, is warranted. Often, it is decided that the mistake had no impact on the outcome of the contest, therefore the mistake is duly noted and the result stands. Sometimes, it is decided that while the rule was indeed applied incorrectly, it's difficult to tell what the impact of the ruling actually was. If the impact is generally considered to be negligible -- even if it went distinctly against one team -- again, the result stands.

But if the ruling is considered to clearly have a direct impact on the outcome of the game (as is obviously the case here) that opens up an entirely new can of worms. In that instance, the ruling body will try to figure out if the error can be corrected -- usually by replaying the game from the point the error was made. The biggest barrier to this happening is usually logistics. In other words, when will it be replayed, and will the conditions even be a reasonable facsimile of the original conditions? When it's too difficult to straighten out -- usually too much of a financial burden -- then the ruling will often stand, even though one team was clearly wronged.

Lastly, even if all these conditions are met, one final question must be answered: Will a reversal set a dangerous precedent that's likely to become burdensome?

With that in mind, let's take a look at the Cougs' case:

  • They have what seems to be an admission from the sport's highest rule interpreter that the officials who made the call misapplied a rule.
  • The result of that misapplication clearly had an immediate and adverse impact on one team's ability to win the game, as it was extremely unlikely that Oregon was going to convert a basket with 0.3 of a second remaining. (By rule, 0.3 seconds is only enough time for a tip, not a catch-and-shoot.) Therefore, the outcome of the game was likely to be different. Redress is clearly warranted.
  • There is a practical application of the redress: The Cougs travel to Oregon on March 6 for the final game of the Pac-10 season. The final 0.3 seconds could be replayed immediately before that contest.  
  • It's unlikely that this reversal would become burdensome; the scope is specific, the misapplication of the rule unquestionable, and this specific instance is unlikely to happen again, given the amount of publicity it has received, especially within the officiating community.

Think that replaying part of a game before another game is never going to happen? Think again -- the NBA did this exact thing two years ago. And that contest was much more comical than this one, as many of the players involved had been traded to other teams by the time it was replayed. In all likelihood, we're talking about replaying one play. It doesn't get any more practical than that.

What seemed like a pipe dream even just a couple of days ago now seems to be a very real possibility. The biggest barrier, to me, is that the Pac-10 is the one who ultimately will make the call on this, and McCabe has made it clear that he believes this was a judgment call. But if the Cougs can somehow get some pressure from above him, they might have a shot. Obviously, no one wants this thing to drag on forever, but this also doesn't need to be resolved in a day or two; they've got time to make a measured, considered decision.

Please, Pac-10: Do the right thing. Correct an injustice, as it's been demonstrated to be. It can be done, and it can be done about as painlessly as one could hope for. Make it happen.