Bad ending? You bet

Maybe the fix wasn't in for the Steelers not to cover against the Chargers, but if it had been, the end could have looked the same.

By King Kaufman

Published November 17, 2008 12:00PM (EST)

It's amazing that in the wake of the Tim Donaghy scandal in the NBA, what happened in Pittsburgh Sunday is even remotely possible in the NFL.

I'm not saying some kind of point shaving was going on at the end of the Pittsburgh Steelers' 11-10 win over the San Diego Chargers, or that the officials were involved. But if there was point-shaving going on, and the officials were involved, and they decided to be really ham-handed about the whole thing, it could have looked exactly like the end of Sunday's game.

You probably know by now what happened if you care. The Chargers had the ball at their own 21 with five seconds left, down 11-10. Time for one snap and a desperation play. Philip Rivers threw a short pass over the middle to LaDainian Tomlinson, who flipped a lateral to Chris Chambers at about the 26. Chambers then lofted a pop fly of a backwards pass sort of in the direction of Rivers at the 20-yard line.

Troy Polamalu of the Steelers swooped in, knocked the pass down, picked up the loose ball and ran it into the end zone. Touchdown Steelers, game over and a 17-10 win. It would have been 18-10 if the Steelers had kicked the point after, which they were lined up to do before the replay official in the booth buzzed down to call for a review.

The play was initially upheld, then ruled an illegal forward pass and a dead ball, the touchdown wiped out and the final score 11-10. Polamalu sure loses a lot of takeaways to officiating errors, doesn't he?

Shortly after the game referee Scott Green told a pool reporter the officials had erred and the touchdown should have counted.

This was no doubt cold comfort to the people who had bet on the Steelers and given between three and five points. If the touchdown had counted, the Steelers would have covered. It didn't, so they didn't.

Betting expert R.J. Bell of the gambling advice site estimates that about $100 million was bet on the Steelers-Chargers game, with about two-thirds of the money down on the Steelers. So the bad call that cost Pittsburgh a touchdown created a swing of some $60 million in favor of the bookies. And Bell said in an e-mail that his $100 million figure is conservative.

The Steelers were also penalized 13 times for 115 yards, the Chargers twice for a total of five. Again, if there were going to be an effort by the officials to keep the Steelers from winning, or from covering, wouldn't this be what it would look like?

One of the games mentioned in the game-fixing scandal that sent former NBA official Tim Donaghy to prison was a playoff game between the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers in which the Lakers seemed to get every call. At the time, there were those who thought the game was fixed, and it's been pointed to in subsequent years as an example of how the NBA is rigged in favor of glamour teams such as the Lakers.

The more sober among us scoffed at the idea. You people watch too many movies, we said. Bad calls happen. The games aren't fixed.

That game might not have been. Donaghy alleged in a post-conviction letter to the court that it was. He was trying to show that corruption among referees was widespread. The NBA denied the charge and continues to insist that Donaghy was a lone rogue official.

But other games were fixed, right under everyone's noses. It was possible after all, in this day and age, with so many eyeballs on every game, for officials to affect the outcome. It was pretty easy, it turned out.

Given that, and given the general distrust of officiating on the part of a home-team rooting, hard-earned cash-wagering fandom, how can the NFL let what happened in Pittsburgh happen?

"This was obviously a decision made to effect the point-spread outcome of an NFL game," a commenter on Sports Illustrated's FanNation bellowed, speaking for many. "Outrageous!!!!!!"

It wasn't outrageous for the booth to review a seemingly meaningless play. That -- along with making the Steelers kick the extra point -- is consistent with the NFL's usual stance of trying to get every play right, down to the last second. Besides, it's possible for points scored to come into play in breaking ties for playoff berths or seedings, though it's pretty far down the list.

But what were the officials looking at? An argument could be made that Tomlinson's pass was a forward pass, not a lateral, but since it was completed, play would have continued even if it were an illegal throw. The Steelers would simply have declined the penalty. Green, the referee, admitted to the pool reporter that the officials made a mistake in ruling that the illegal forward pass should have killed the play and ended the game before Polamalu ever touched the ball.

But wait, it gets worse. Green also said, "The first pass was the one that was illegal." He said there was confusion among the officials over which pass was being reviewed. But go watch the play. There was nothing remotely illegal about Rivers' pass. It was a simple drop-back and toss over the middle.

In a league perfectly willing to waste six minutes of fans' lives to settle whether the ball should be placed two inches this way or that on a third-and-5, how can it be that the booth and field officials -- and maybe someone from the league -- didn't take the time to get this call right, with the correct score posted? They took a touchdown off the board because of a penalty that was incorrectly assessed, and it was called on the wrong guy? Good grief.

The NFL simply can't allow its officials to take points off the scoreboard while acting so cluelessly. The only logical explanations for Sunday are that the officials are incompetent or the fix is in. Neither works too well for the NFL.

It doesn't and shouldn't matter to the NFL that bettors lost a bundle because of the blown call. What matters is whether people think gambling interests have an influence on the games. The league will be in damage control mode for a while to try to convince us all that nothing of the sort is even possible.

The problem is, we know that it is, and the league should have already had procedures in place to ensure that Sunday's end-of-game chaos and confusion couldn't have happened.

Here's another comment on a blog, this one from AOL's Fanouse: "I got totally ripped off for over $600.00 and I have decided that I will never bet on NFL again."

Which is the smartest thing anybody's said about this whole thing. At least until the NFL gets its act together.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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