sports psychologist & clinical psychology

UPON FURTHER REVIEW, IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON

Seattle Times – Feb 10, 2006 – John Boyle (also in San Jose Mercury News, Charlotte Observer, Pioneer Press, and The Olympian) – OK, Seattle, it has been almost a week now. It’s time to sit back, take a deep breath, debunk a few myths, and start letting go.

Yes, the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl. Yes, there were some questionable calls by the officials. Yes, they all seemed to go against the Seahawks. But if you take a step back and look at things objectively, it wasn’t quite as bad as it probably seemed when you were throwing Cheetos at your TV on Sunday.

Earlier this week, the NFL defended its Super Bowl officials, and Seahawks fans everywhere muttered a collective, “What the … ?”

The blame game can be caused by something psychologists refer to as “attribution.”

“Nobody likes to lose,” said Dr. John F. Murray, a clinical and sport performance psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla. “If you can find an alternative explanation that doesn’t include your team, you’re going to use it to protect your self esteem. It makes it easier to say, ‘Our team was not bad, but we got jobbed.’ ”

It’s not just Seahawks faithful who have a hard time with the league’s statement that the game was “properly officiated.” Newspaper columnists, TV personalities and other NFL players have criticized the Super Bowl officiating ad nauseam this week.

Critics point not only to the Super Bowl but to the rest of the playoffs as evidence of shoddy officiating. The most obvious play went against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a divisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts. Troy Polamalu had an apparent interception overturned after the play was reviewed, and the league later admitted it got the play wrong.

It would seem problematic for a league and its fans and impartial observers to be so far apart on the topic of officiating, but the NFL doesn’t think it has a problem.

“It’s not unusual. It’s part of sports,” said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. “This happened to be the Super Bowl, so it has been magnified. But it is a very normal part of sports. Our officials are doing a great job. The quality of the officiating, based on the feedback we get from our clubs, has been outstanding over the last couple of years.”

Every time controversy happens on a big stage � and this was the biggest of all � people scream for change. Suddenly, the league needs full-time officials. Suddenly, the officials are too old to keep up with a high-speed game. Suddenly, the fix is in.

None of this is new to the NFL. The league has heard the complaints before.

“You’re never going to have everyone happy with every call,” said Aaron Pointer, a former NFL official who lives in Tacoma and works for the league as a game-day observer. “It’s the same thing you see in every sport. That goes with the territory. You’re never going to please all the fans. That’s an impossibility.”

As for making officials full-time employees, Pointer doesn’t think it would make a difference.

“You can make officials in the NFL full time, but it won’t correct anyone’s judgment,” he said. “There’s a human element involved, and when that’s involved there are going to be some questions in judgment. All of these guys know the rules. Spending more time on that won’t make a difference.”

NFL officials work 15 games per season, not including playoffs. First-year officials make about $3,000 per game, while veterans make upward of $5,000. The top-graded officials during the course of the season are selected to work the playoffs, where the pay increases to approximately $12,000 per game. The playoff officials are then rated on their playoff and season performances to determine who works the Super Bowl. Those officials are paid about $15,000.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL all employ full-time officials, but those sports play substantially more games. Besides, most NFL officials will tell you it is pretty much a full-time gig.

“I think ‘full time’ is a misnomer,” said Jim Tunney, an NFL official for 31 years before retiring in 1991. “If it means that’s all you do, then they’re not full time. Almost all these guys have other jobs, but they still do football-related stuff every day.

“Besides, ‘full time’ doesn’t make you perfect. Baseball umpires are full time, and if you watched the World Series last year, mistakes were made. It’s a human game. Players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes, officials make mistakes.”

People criticizing officials like to play the age card as well. The thought is that middle-aged men have a hard time keeping up with the speed of the game and are missing calls as a result. Of course, if younger officials were brought in, critics would start to complain about a lack of experience. Current NFL officials need at least 10 years of experience in major college football or other professional leagues, such as the Arena League.

“I felt like I was better in the last two years than I ever was,” said Tunney, who retired when he was 61. “As I watch the games, I see guys going down the sideline with guys who are 30 years younger than them. When you get to the point when you’re not keeping up, you should get out, and most of them do. All of them are in really good shape.”

And don’t get these guys started on corruption.

Pointer points out that officials, like players, are not allowed to gamble on sports � not just football, but any sport. They are subject to random drug tests; cannot drink alcohol the day before a game; and, during the season, cannot go to Las Vegas or other cities that allow gambling.

“I couldn’t go see my sisters perform when they played in Vegas during the season,” said Pointer, brother of the Pointer Sisters. “And I had to notify the NFL that I was going to Las Vegas to see them perform when the season was over.

“I can assure Seahawks fans that there is no conspiracy.”

So why was the officiating so terrible? Well, it might not have been quite as atrocious as you remember. Aside from the illegal-block call on Matt Hasselbeck � which no one seems willing to defend � an argument can be made for each controversial call.

In the days following Super Bowl XL, everyone has been so eager to rip the officiating that a few facts have changed along the way. And that phenomenon was not just limited to fans.

Media members with no ties to Seattle have exaggerated, and in some cases just been wrong, describing plays such as the Darrell Jackson pass-interference call.

One writer said back judge Bob Waggoner threw the flag on Jackson after signaling a touchdown, which he didn’t. Several others have said he hesitated for several seconds and threw the flag after complaints from safety Chris Hope. Watching a replay at full speed shows Waggoner reaching for his flag within one second of Jackson making the catch.

It’s also easy when blaming the officials to forget calls that went against the Steelers, such as a Jerramy Stevens drop that might have actually been a fumble. Had the play been ruled a fumble, linebacker James Farrior almost certainly would have recovered for the Steelers.

Richard Crowley, a California psychologist who works with athletes, says blaming the officials is just a way to cope with loss.

“When there’s a death or a loss, someone has to be the fall guy,” he said. “You have to get mad at somebody; it’s human nature. ‘Someone has to take responsibility for our team not winning.’

“After enough time goes by, however, you lick your wounds and you slowly move on.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

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