Feinstein: Bill Vinovich Is Either Irresponsible Or A Liar

Referees have to be held accountable, John Feinstein said, and Vinovich's response to the missed call in the NFC Championship was inexcusable

John Feinstein
January 23, 2019 - 11:10 am

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Having covered sports for as long as I have, I’ve had the chance to get to know a lot of officials. I like most of them; admire many for the work they do.
         
I’ve spent time with officials—traveled with them, socialized with them and written about them extensively in books on college basketball, tennis, golf and baseball.
         
Although I’ve had the chance to talk to football officials too, I know them the least, in large part because getting access to them is pretty close to impossible on both the college and pro levels.
         
The NFL official I know best is the recently retired Gene Steratore. Why do I know him? Because he also worked as a college basketball official and I often had the chance to talk to him while he was on a basketball court.
         
If I’m guilty of any sort of bias when it comes to officials, it’s giving them the benefit of the doubt. When I do games on television, there are, inevitably, calls I disagree with—sometimes replay confirms my disagreement, and sometimes it shows that the call was right. I ALWAYS call myself out when my initial reaction proves wrong and, when a call is wrong, I make the point that it’s very easy to sit where I sit and look at four replays and get the call right. The official has to make a split-second decision from one angle.
         
It’s not an easy job—regardless of sport.
         
But officials need to be held accountable for their work the same way players and coaches are held accountable. Almost every sport does a poor job of this.
         
Baseball does the best job: most nights, reporters are free to knock on the door to the umpire’s locker room to ask about calls. Occasionally, an umpire will refuse to talk, but more often than not, they’re willing.
         
When Jim Joyce, one of baseball’s best umpires, missed a call at first base in Detroit in 2010 that cost the Tigers' Armando Gallaraga a perfect game, he met with the media to apologize for what had happened.
         
“I just missed the damn call,” he said. “I missed it from here to that wall. This isn’t just any call. This is a history call and I kicked the ---- out of it. I took a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his ass off all night. That was probably the most important call of my career, and I missed it.”
         
Joyce then went to the Tiger clubhouse to apologize to Galarraga. You can’t be more accountable than that. The next day, when the umpires came out before the game, Joyce got a standing ovation from Tiger fans. They understood: he was human, he made a mistake and he stood up and said so.
         
Unfortunately, Joyce is an exception, not the rule.
         
On Sunday, millions of us saw the officials probably cost the New Orleans Saints a trip to the Super Bowl when they missed a blatant pass interference call—which also could have been a personal foul—that would have given the Saints a first down on the L.A. Rams' 3-yard line.
         
From there, they could have run the clock to almost zero and kicked a chip-shot field goal to win as time expired.
         
The missed call forced the Saints to kick the go-ahead field goal with 1:41 on the clock and the Rams—to their credit—used that time to get into position for a game-tying field goal and then won in overtime.
         
This was, as Joyce had put it, “a history call.” Or, in this case, non-call. If the Rams beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, their players and fans won’t really care, but most of the football world will see the title as tainted. That’s unfair to the Rams, but it also happens to be true.
        
What’s more, Drew Brees, at 40, was denied perhaps his last chance to win a second Super Bowl. The entire city of New Orleans may never get over the call; the same way fans in Baltimore still bemoan the Jeffrey Maier non-call in the 1996 American League playoffs (Rich Garcia, the umpire who missed that call, spoke to the media after the game) and Oakland Raider fans will never get over the "tuck rule" call in the 2001-2002 NFL playoffs.
         
This was worse. There was NO doubt about this call; no little-known rule to invoke. Everyone—including the Rams—agreed there should have been a flag.
         
And yet, when a pool reporter was allowed to speak to referee Bill Vinovich, his answer to the question about the call was: “I didn’t see it.”
         
WHAT?
         
When Joyce spoke to the media, he said he had asked for the play he had missed to be cued up on replay as soon as he got into the locker room. That was when he realized he’d missed it.
         
You mean to tell me that before speaking to the pool reporter, Vinovich didn’t bother to look at a replay? There are two options here: he’s completely irresponsible, or he’s a liar. When you go to any NFL game, the place is swarming with league officials. You can’t turn around without bumping into one. You mean to tell me there wasn’t anyone around to advise Vinovich to look at the replay before speaking to the media?
         
Seriously?
         
In truth, the pool reporter should have been allowed to speak to ALL the officials to ask what they saw—or didn’t see. How could seven alleged professionals ALL not see what happened? What were they doing, watching the pre-game show for the Patriots and Chiefs on their phones?
         
Although an NFL official apparently conceded to Saints coach Sean Payton that the call was missed right after the game, there’s been no statement yet from Commissioner Roger Goodell.
         
Instead, NFL-types are whispering in the media’s ear—not for attribution of course—that the league’s going to consider making pass interference a call that can be reviewed next season.
         
THAT’S NOT THE ANSWER.
         
Most of the time, pass interference is too close to call, one way or the other—sort of like the block-charge in basketball. Replay reviews are already too frequent and take too much time. You review every POSSIBLE PI and games will take forever—and most of the time 50 percent of viewers are going to disagree with the call, regardless.
         
The best answer—though not a perfect one because no answer is perfect—is to DEMAND that officials get better and be more accountable. Vinovich should have been fired before he left the building Sunday, not because his crew horribly missed a call, but because his response to that horribly missed call was either arrogant beyond belief or flat-out dishonest. “I didn’t see it.” If true, he was the only person in America who hadn’t seen it at that moment.
         
ALL NFL officials should be full-time employees. They should be graded on their work throughout the season—much the same way coaches grade their players by watching tape of each game and, often, practice. If they fail to achieve a certain level—I’ll leave it to the professionals to figure out the grade scale—then they lose their job, just as players do.
         
Being an official shouldn’t be a job for life. (Neither should being a Supreme Court Justice, but that’s another story for another day). And, just as important, officials should be as accountable as the players and coaches.
         
I understand you can’t just open officials' locker rooms to everyone in the media. That’s why pool reporting exists. Of course, in the case of the NCAA Tournament, the pool reporter has to ask a basketball committee member for access to the officials when a controversy comes up and—sometimes—the committee member will say no. It shouldn’t be up to the committee member to decide, it should be up to the pool reporter. That’s why he/she exists.
         
Seven years ago, I was the pool reporter at the East Regional in Boston. Early in the final, Jim Boeheim got teed up. The Syracuse writers—understandably—were all over me for an explanation. It was Saturday night: tight deadlines. So, at halftime, I got the official’s attention—it was Tom O’Neill, a very good official who I knew well—and asked him what happened.
         
He told me he’d warned Boeheim to quit whining (Boeheim whine?) repeatedly, and when Boeheim had given him a hand-signal that indicated disgust (not profane but obvious) , he teed him up. I quickly typed the quote, sent it directly to the Syracuse guys and then to the NCAA media reps so they could distribute it to everyone else.
         
I had done my job and so had O’Neil.
        
Except we hadn’t. As I was waiting to talk to players and coaches postgame (it was now very late and I was seriously on deadline), Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, who was on the basketball committee, tapped me on the shoulder.
         
“We’ve got a problem with your pool quote,” he said.
         
I was baffled.
         
“You didn’t ask permission to talk to the official and (worse) there’s supposed to be a CBS rep with you if you do talk to him. So, we’re not going to distribute your quote. If you want one, you have to come talk to John Higgins with someone from CBS.”
         
“Seriously?”
         
He was serious. I should have just said fine, I don’t care. The Syracuse guys—the ones who really cared—had the quote. But I had taken on the job so…
         
Lesley Visser, then with CBS, and I went to the refs' locker room. John Higgins, the lead official, NOT the official who had called the tech, spoke to us. “It was for verbal abuse,” Higgins said. That was ALL he said. Twenty minutes of my life gone for nothing.
         
The quote made O’Neil look bad because it wasn’t nearly as complete as what he’d told me. Just as Vinovich’s ridiculous answer made him look arrogant beyond belief and did nothing to explain how the call had been missed.
         
Jim Joyce should open a school for officials in all sports. Call it, "Accountability 101." It would benefit EVERYONE involved.
 
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in The NFL,” is currently on the New York Times bestseller list. His latest work of fiction, ‘The Prodigy,’ is set at the Masters and focuses on a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the tournament but finds himself fending off agents, shoe company reps, the media and his father while he tries to just be talented teen-ager, not a human ATM machine.