Work in Sports
Posted: Wednesday January 19, 2000 12:29 PM
The NFL should take the gag off its oft-embattled referees
By Frank Deford
NFL referee Phil Luckett is apparently destined to be in the middle of things. It was Luckett who last season was accused of screwing up the call by Steeler Jerome Bettis on an overtime coin flip. Ten days later it was Luckett who was the crew chief when his head linesman blew a goal line call that gave Vinny Testaverde's Jets a bogus touchdown against the Seahawks. That led to the return of instant replay. So, two weeks ago, there again was Luckett -- this time upholding, with the aid of video, his new head linesman's call on the last-gasp lateral that gave the Titans a playoff victory over the Bills.
Still, Luckett must remain, like almost all sports officials, a cipher. The NFL, like the NBA and the NCAA, maintains a strict gag rule on referees. Officials know that in a crunch the league will hang them out to dry, but to keep their jobs they must remain loyal, silent apparatchiks. For example, replays showed that when Bettis made his infamous coin call, he said something like, "Heads, uh ... tails." Luckett correctly accepted the first call -- and became a laughingstock. But a source who heard the tape of NFL officiating chief Jerry Seeman's review meeting the week after the Bettis episode reports that Seeman said of Luckett's decision, "Men, this was handled properly." Typically, neither Seeman nor any other NFL official publicly backed up Luckett.
There's a platitude that an official is doing his job when he's unnoticed. But when everybody else has the right of free speech -- and the right to criticize -- muzzling officials is unfair and downright cruel. After Indiana coach Bob Knight vilified Ted Valentine, a respected veteran college basketball referee, last season, Valentine finally broke down and told his side of the story to Referee magazine. The result: Valentine has been taken off all Big Ten games, perhaps in perpetuity. You've got to hand it to baseball: That game may have disputes with its umpires, but it treats them as grown-ups and allows them to talk to the press.
We're not permitted to speak to Phil Luckett, but our sources whisper that he's even-tempered, sturdy, religious; a good man. It would be right -- and above all, decent -- of the NFL to support this good soldier by naming him as the Super Bowl ref. Then all American sports organizations should declare their trust in the officials who run their games by giving them the right of free speech.
Issue date: January 24, 2000
For more Scorecard see this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday, January 19. Click here to subscribe to SI.