Officiating is about fairness and ethics, but should this give license to ignoring rules one might perceive as trivial or foolish?
Two rounds into March Madness, some fans have been crying foul over NCAA Tournament officials' consistent enforcement of NCAA basketball's lane violation rule, first in Thursday's UNC-Asheville vs. Syracuse contest and again during Notre Dame's upset loss on Friday at the hands of the Xavier Musketeers.
As I wrote after Syracuse's win on Thursday, referees are human and make mistakes just like anyone else—no player shoots free throws at 100 percent.
Nonetheless, fans will always heckle referees, coaches will continue to receive technical fouls for crossing the line and close calls will perpetually stir controversy—that's just the nature of the beast in all sports, not just basketball.
On Thursday—and every day—there are incorrect calls that merit discussion: out-of-bounds violations awarded to the incorrect team, missed goaltending or basket interference calls. The Syracuse Orange game had both of those.
Still, there comes a juncture where second-guessing the officials loses its legitimacy and starts reflecting poorly on those generating allegations and preserving accusations.
When analyst Reggie Miller disparaged referee Eric Curry after Curry called a key lane violation against Asheville guard J.P. Primm, Miller did a huge disservice to fans everywhere by basing his condemnation on a rule he did not know.
For the benefit of all TV analysts, coaches, players and fans looking for clarification, the following is the full text of NCAA Basketball Rule 9, Section 1, Article 2, Provision g:
Players not in a legal marked lane space shall remain behind the free-throw line extended and behind the three-point field-goal line until the ball strikes the ring, flange or backboard, or until the free throw ends.
For those wondering, a free throw is adjudged to have ended when (a) the free throw is successful and a point has been scored or (b) the try has ended by virtue of the ball striking the ground, as in an air-ball.
Primm clearly crossed the three-point arc prior to the basketball contacting the ring or backboard; the call was undeniably correct and it is highly unfortunate that Miller decided to fan the flames of controversy without bothering to know the rule he believes was improperly enforced.
For the record, the NBA does not have such a restriction, which might explain why the former professional player did not know the college rule; nonetheless, it is embarrassing for a national telecaster—especially one branded as an analyst—to be so unfamiliar with the level of basketball being played.
Impressionable fans rely on broadcast personalities to communicate accurate information during games they watch. In this regard, Miller—and by extension, CBS/Warner—clearly failed.
When Notre Dame experienced their lane violation gaffe Friday evening, it was Jerian Grant playing the role of Primm by charging past the three-point line prior to teammate Eric Atkins' free throw striking the ring or ending via the swish.
Though the broadcast crew initially déjà vued by once again not understanding the call, a member of the technical crew was able to communicate with their on-air broadcasters: "that is the rule ... it was the right call."
Following an intentional foul call against the Fighting Irish on St. Patrick's Day Eve, analyst Clark Kellogg confirmed the gutsy calls' accuracy: "two tough calls, but two correct calls."
On Thursday, UNC-Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach conceded as much, but still thought his team should have not been punished for breaking the rules: "The lane violation was the correct call, but you never see it called, especially not in the last minute of a close NCAA tournament game."
The idea of calling a game differently during its final minutes compared to its opening ones is a philosophical question that good officials in all sports dismiss as a misguided myth that balks at the officiating axiom of consistency.
UNC-Asheville and Notre Dame's violations were correct by rule, but should situation alone dictate otherwise?
Games should be called steadily from start to finish so that a foul at 19:00 in the first half is still a foul at 0.5 seconds in overtime.
Rules are a standard set of expectations and allowances that create a fair, even and just playing field for everyone—players, coaches and fans alike. The rules book contains no section titled, "Modified rules for the final two minutes" or "How to officiate the final 2.8 seconds of a potential upset."
Likewise, the rules make no mention of withholding the lane violation if no unfair advantage is gained; the only situation in which a lane violation shall not be called is the case of a defender committing the violation on a made free throw. In such a case, the successful free throw stands and the violation is discarded.
Should referees ever ignore infractions of the rules as written?
Without a standard and uniform set of regulations, unfair circumstances thrive due to a lack of provisions offering deterrents or proscribing penalties against offenses and violations.
Getting the call right is tantamount to ensuring a fair and respectable outcome for all involved, in accordance with rules which everyone plays by. An official's job is to enforce the rules as written, not to rewrite or ignore them at key points in the game when a victory hangs in the balance.
Just because a call had been missed earlier against Team A does not invite an opportunity to forsake the rules when it comes to Team B.
At this point the advantage vs. disadvantage principle comes into play. Though not applicable to the Syracuse-Asheville play in which the violating player secures the rebound, this principle can easily be applied to Xavier-Notre Dame.
The crux of this argument specifies that because the free throw was made, Notre Dame gained no unfair advantage by rushing the area of restriction. Those employing this line of discourse support the notion that Grant's violation should be ignored because the free throw was made and, therefore, no unfair advantage had been gained by his early entry.
In practice, this may be true on this particular play in question; however, if this violation is ignored, a Pandora's Box of "what if's" is opened.
What if, on the very next play, Xavier's player enters the lane early after seeing Notre Dame's player do it without penalty and the free throw is missed? What if Notre Dame gets the rebound and puts it back in? Should Notre Dame be awarded two points or a substitute free throw?
What if a Xavier player recovers the board—on the side of the key opposite where the violation occurred?
What if the shooter claims disconcertion because his opponent is somewhere he shouldn't be at a certain time?
Rule 9 is extremely thorough for exactly that series of "what if's": Rule 9 answers each and every one of those questions by stating the rule should be enforced every single time, save for a defensive player's violation on a successful free throw.
Still another line of reasoning concludes that Notre Dame did experience an advantage during this early entry play. The advantage here was that the free throw was successful and Notre Dame stood to score a point.
MLB umpire supervisor Chuck Meriwether recently joined Red Sox broadcasters Joe Castiglione and Jon Rish during a spring training game and summed it up perfectly: "When teams say, 'call strikes,' what they really mean is, 'call strikes on everyone else; don't call it on me.' Technology or not, you've got to be fair."
The only question is, "what is fair?"
Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the fair and objective analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.