Settle Sports Where They Belong

The Rolex 24 is this weekend. Many drivers from the NTT IndyCar Series will be competing in what I always considered to be an enjoyable event. We are all starved for racing and it’s good to get a good twenty-four hour dose of it. Recent history has shown that if the Rolex 24 is this weekend, then the Super Bowl must be next weekend.

If you are a football fan at all, you probably know that there is a current uproar regarding a missed call late in a playoff game last week – the NFC Championship game, to be precise. For those that don’t know, with the score tied and the New Orleans Saints nearing the Los Angeles Rams goal line, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw a pass to wide-receiver Tommylee Lewis. Lewis was all but mugged by Rams defender Nickell Robey-Coleman. Everyone looked for a penalty flag for pass-interference that never came. The Saints ended up losing the game in overtime.

When I was watching the game, I knew it was a bad call. I really had no rooting interest, but I new the Saints had gotten a bad deal since the outcome of the game decided one of the teams in the Super Bowl. I’ve seen calls just as bad or worse, but bad calls happen in every game in every sport. That’s just a part of sports. You don’t have to like it, but that’s what happens when you have human beings making judgment calls – sometimes they get it wrong.

What sets this bad call apart is that the Saint fans refuse to accept the outcome. I sympathize with them. The Vols and Titans have been on the wrong end of bad calls many times over the years. But you now what? They’ve benefited from a few too. I know the Saints have too.

But rather than taking their lumps and moving on to next year, some Saints fans have decided to take the route that is becoming popular in today’s society. They are taking it to the courts. They want NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to invoke a little known NFL rule known as Rule 17, Section 2, Article 3; which states: The Commissioner’s powers under this Section 2 include the imposition of monetary fines and draft-choice forfeitures, suspension of persons involved in unfair acts, and, if appropriate, the reversal of a game’s result or the rescheduling of a game, either from the beginning or from the point at which the extraordinary act occurred.

After Sunday’s game, more than one lawsuit has been filed trying to force Goodell in ordering the last few minutes of the game be replayed. It’s becoming quite the trend these days – If you don’t like the result of something, either riot or sue.

Of course, nothing will happen; but the very thought that some people actually think sports should go down such a slippery slope is a scary one. If that precedent were set, there would be no more victories on a court, field or race track. The victories would be limited to in court and only the lawyers would win.

In my lifetime, there have been two races settled in appeals hearings. Years later, there are still scars from both of them.

A closed-door appeals hearing heard the dispute from Team Green claiming that Paul Tracy should have been declared the winner of the 2002 Indianapolis 500. Team Green claimed that Tracy passed Helio Castroneves on Lap 198 going into Turn Three just as Laurent Redon crashed, bringing out the caution. Team Penske and Helio claimed that Tracy made the pass after the yellow came out. There is video to support both claims. Quite honestly, I can’t definitively say who was right.

While the race was run on May 26, there was a protest hearing at 10:00 am on Monday May 27. Brian Barnhart denied the protest and declared Castroneves the winner. Team Green then submitted a written protest on June 3 and a closed-door hearing was scheduled for June 17 – more than three weeks after the race.

A verdict didn’t come until July 2. Speedway President Tony George ruled that Helio Castroneves was the clear winner. Speculation began immediately that had Team Green been an IRL team rather than a CART interloper – the verdict may have been different.

Personally, I was torn. I was a lifelong Penske fan and I was also an Helio fan, but my loyalties were still somewhat with the CART side of The Split – although that support was waning by then.

But one thing was for certain. It was an ugly chapter in the history of the Indianapolis 500. It drove an even bigger wedge into a fan base that had already been divided for years. Tracy hasn’t helped matters by proclaiming himself as “the rightful winner of the 2002 Indianapolis 500” or something to that extent. But to his and Team Green’s credit, they didn’t take the appeal to a higher court. They made it clear that they didn’t like or agree with the ruling, but they didn’t keep pushing the matter. They took their lumps and moved on.

As ugly as the aftermath in 2002 was, it didn’t come close to what 1981 brought.

On Lap 149 of the 1981 Indianapolis 500, Mario Andretti had already charged from his thirty-second starting position to lead the race, while pole-sitter Bobby Unser was in second. The two pitted under the caution at the same time, but Unser had a faster stop and came out of the pits, leading Andretti. Inexplicably, Unser passed a slew of cars while he was still on the shoulder until he came around to the blend line in Turn Two. Just as inexplicably, Mario Andretti passed a lot of cars at the same time.

The ABC delayed broadcast that night featured Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart calling attention to Unser’s passing under the yellow to the viewers. But according to Donald Davidson, they went back and added that commentary hours later after the controversy surfaced – as if they were so astute and on top of the rules.

The next morning, Mario Andretti had been declared the winner. Bobby Unser drank milk in Victory Lane after the race, but it was Mario Andretti posing for the traditional shots the next morning.

With so many laps remaining, there was time to penalize Unser a lap and he maybe would have been able to have worked his way back to the front. But by penalizing after the race was over was more than Unser’s car owner, Roger Penske, could stand. An appeal was filed.

The original hearing began on June 12. After dragging on, the hearings were adjourned until July 29. More deliberations took place over the summer as the proceedings dragged on into the fall. Finally on October 9, more than four months after the race had been run, a USAC appeals board voted to overturn Andretti’s win and award the victory to Bobby Unser. Instead of stripping Unser of the victory, they fined him $40,000 for his infraction.

For over four months, Mario Andretti was a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. But fate determined that it was not to be. Again, the lawyers were the big winners. As gutted as Andretti was to lose his second win through a hearing, I don’t think Bobby Unser was turning cartwheels. No one wants to win or lose a race through an appeals board. Time has lessened the tensions where both parties can at least chuckle over the 1981 race, but I suspect there are still deep feelings on both sides.

Years later, I look at both races with a mental asterisk attached to them. It’s not because there was controversy attached to both of the races. There is controversy attached to a lot of races. No, it’s because the lawyers got involved and the results weren’t decided for weeks or even months.

But now, fans are trying to get lawyers involved in the much more mainstream and visible NFL. We have entered a new world where if people don’t like an outcome, outrage ensues and they feel empowered to do whatever it takes to reverse that outcome. If you don’t like how an election turned out, insist on a recount. If the recount still didn’t give you the result you wanted, sue through the courts. If that doesn’t work, encourage violence and rioting. By any means necessary seems to be the new mantra. It happens on both sides of the political aisle and it sickens me whoever does it.

Now it seems OK to apply that logic to our sporting events. Saints fans didn’t like the call, so they want to sue the NFL in hopes that they will actually make the Rams fly back to New Orleans to play football for a couple of minutes to determine who will go to the Super Bowl. What is scary is that these are seemingly intelligent people that think this should and could happen.

The Immaculate Reception is one of the most iconic plays in football history – and one of the most controversial. The result was that the Pittsburg Steelers moved on to the 1972 AFC Championship game, while the Oakland Raiders were eliminated. What if Raiders owner Al Davis went out and lawyered-up and sued the NFL? Back then, they would have been laughed out of town and been portrayed as whiners and cry-babies. Today, it is merely raising eyebrows. Tomorrow, it may be considered the norm.

Last May, James Hinchcliffe and Pippa Mann failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. While it was a bitter pill for each of them to swallow, they accepted their fate as many others before them have. But will that always be the case? Twice in the last forty years (1979 & 1997), the field has been expanded due to extenuating circumstances. But what if someone doesn’t make the field and they sue just because they don’t like the result of not being fast enough? Does it sound crazy? Yes, but not as much as it once did.

I’ve seen two examples of major sporting events in my lifetime being decided by lawyers – the 1981 and 2002 Indianapolis 500s. Those were two black-eyes for the sport I love. I hope I’m still around at least another twenty-five years or so, but I also hope I never see another sporting event settled in hearings or court rooms. Settle them where they belong.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “Settle Sports Where They Belong”

  1. George, it’s the NFC, not the NGC, just trying to help….

  2. I know it’s a typo, lol!!!!

  3. BrandonWright77 Says:

    IMS had a fitting photo for this story up on Facebook yesterday.

  4. You know what? I seem to remember years ago the Saints benefitting from almost the same (non) call against my Brett Favre-led Minnesota Vikings in the same NFC Championship game!! It was the closest the Vikes had gotten to the Super Bowl since the Dennis Green disaster at Atlanta in the 1990s! I was livid!

    But we didn’t call the lawyers….

  5. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I hate lawyers getting involved. I was actually for the Rams but clearly the referee should be fined for missing that call. The Saints got screwed. The “Immaculate Reception” was illegal and should never have happened. I still believe Paul Tracey won the 2002 Indy 500 but was denied because of the split. It’s also why I don’t want Helio to win his 4th. (I don’t believe he won his 3rd) I really didn’t have an opinion on the 1981 race. I just remember being really confused and I remember that my business had an office pool for the race and put the winnings in the company safe until the final ruling was made in October. Anyway I do think that NFL refs are paid well and should be fined or suspended or both for blown calls like the one last week.

    • I’m not trying to be argumentative, but couldn’t fining and such lead to unintended consequences? Like timidity, or its opposite, calling every penalty? Honestly, they could call holding on every play….

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Wait, Al Davis DIDN’T sue the NFL over the Immaculate Reception? He sued them over everything else. I guess the Raiders got to cash that blown call in with the Holy Roller.

    The Tracy-Castroneves call was amazingly close, but what was so very frustrating about the ultimate ruling was that it really wasn’t a one. The ruling at the appeal was not that Castroneves had won based on evidence presented but that the rule book stated that original call could not be appealed. This was after the series had allowed and scheduled an appeals hearing, and Barry Green had spent a fair amount of time and money preparing Tracy’s case. Heck, it was after the hearing allowed Tracy’s case to be presented. It is no wonder Green walked away from the sport immediately after being treated like that and it is no wonder Tracy was not placated by a decision that refused to even consider what his side presented.

    Amazing to me is that the justification of the original call, freezing the field when the caution was called for rather than when it was actually displayed, remains codified in place in NASCAR. This cost Chase Briscoe a victory in the truck series race at Texas in 2017, as he led Christopher Bell when the caution lights came on but not when race control called for a caution for Timothy Peters’ last lap rollover wreck. This justification is quite unsatisfying for the fan, who only knows a caution is out when they see the flag or light displayed and understandably expect those displays to be the law.

  7. way off topic, sorry– but R. Miller in his Mailbag said the field of 33 was not a tradition worth maintaining, sorry Miller, but I might call up a whole Cadillac Escalade full of lawyers if they let more than 33 start the 500.

  8. legal gambling is coming. where there’s money, there’s lawyers.
    “Does it sound crazy? Yes, but not as much as it once did.”

  9. Ok, a couple of salient points:
    I was at the 1981 race and while I was no fan of Uncle Bobby OR Mario, I was happy when Mario was declared the winner UNTIL I saw the video some time later. Unser passed cars directly in front of where I was sitting and I remarked to the folks I was with that he should be penalized for that offense; However, no penalty was forthcoming until AFTER the race.

    Of course, it was AFTER the decision had been rendered that I saw the video indicating that Mario had committed the same offense. Still, I was somewhat ambivalent once I had seen the video, but the drawn out court proceeding made USAC and (by association) The Speedway look ridiculous. In all likelihood, that decision went a long way toward USAC being “fired” as the sanctioning body of the 500.

    That debacle caused me NOT to renew my tickets for the next year, causing me to miss the epic Johncock/Mears duel down the straightaway.

    As to the Tracy /Castroneves controversy, I missed the end of that race, but I have watched the video multiple times and BOTH sides have merit, since there was really no definitive view.

    All that said, I come from a FAMILY of lawyers. My Grandmother, father and younger brother are/were distinguished members of the legal profession. Nonetheless, the LAST thing I EVER want to see is lawyers deciding a sporting event and the NFC Championship game is no exception, in spite of the fact that the call in question was BUTCHERED, quite likely the most egregious no-call I have ever seen.

    I also have many friends who are Who Dats. Those who understand the game are not the ones advocating the overturn of the result, although I imagine there are a few sportsbooks who would love to see that happen, since they would likely rule all wagers as a “no action.”

    Point is, bad calls are a part of the game on the field as well as on the track. Put away your crying towels, call off the lawyers, and grow the Hell up!

  10. Lynn Weinberg Says:

    Living in New Orleans is really bleak. It’s a great place to visit, but living here is depressing. Football, food and Mardi Gras is really all anyone cares about. The lawyer that filed the suit is one of those “bus bench lawyers” that has the hokey commercials and probably chases ambulances. It’s embarrassing that people here are acting like this.

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