And then . . .
The flag. The whistle. Out of nowhere.
Next thing you know, the other team and its fans, the ones you were just heckling a few moments ago, are cheering. Game over.
You raise your arms in indignation. You shout obscenities. You stare in disbelief. But the scoreboard doesn't change. Game over. Your team lost. You know in your heart of hearts it was a bad call, that your team has just been slapped with an injustice. But there is absolutely nothing you can do to change it.
You can throw debris, as NASCAR fans did in April when Jeff Gordon was ruled the winner against Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega. You can shout obscenities and pelt the official with bottle caps, coins, and even urine bags, as soccer fans around the globe are known to do. You can hire an airplane to skywrite an anti-ref message for all to see, as a disgruntled Miami Dolphins fan did in the 1970s.
You can file an official complaint, as the University of Florida did last weekend after a botched call and clock mismanagement led to Tennessee's game-winning drive. And sometimes, as was the case with the Gators, the head of officials might admit that a mistake was, in fact, made.
But it won't make a bit of difference. All the ranting and raving you do after the game, the ad nauseam talk-radio debates, the Internet polls, none of them will change the outcome of the game.
You just have to deal with it. Like you do when your flight gets canceled. Like you do when you are late for an appointment and you run into a huge traffic jam. Annoying? Definitely. But there is no recourse. And that is why Gator fans were still seething a week after that loss to the Vols, and why University of Miami fans still get hot under the collar when someone mentions that Ohio State won the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.
"Sports fans feel like victims when their team gets a bad call, and they don't have any court to vent their grievances," said Dan Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State who studies fan behavior. "It has always been part of sports, but now it's magnified because there are so many outlets for sports on television and the Internet. You see the replay 30 times on ESPN SportsCenter. You see it discussed on Internet message boards. The radio talk shows don't let it die. So, the feeling festers for a long time."
Only in a very rare case can fans' whining change a result. It happened at the Athens Olympics, when fans were so outraged by what they felt were low marks for Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov that they booed incessantly for 10 minutes. American Paul Hamm waited his turn as the fans continued to boo, determined to make the judges rethink their marks. Lo and behold, after 10 minutes, two judges changed their scores. Nemov still didn't win a medal, but those fans left the building feeling a little bit victorious.
Most of the time, though, the results don't change, and fans and athletes are left to feel cheated for days, weeks, months, and sometimes longer.
The U.S. 1972 men's Olympic basketball team is still waiting for its gold medal. So is Korean gymnast Yang Tae-young, who got the bronze in Athens, but felt he should have had the gold instead of Hamm after judges admitted they made a scoring error.
Serena Williams probably will need quite some time to get past her recent loss to Jennifer Capriati at the U.S. Open. A ball that was clearly in was called out _ one of four questionable calls against Williams in the final set of an emotional, close match _ and Williams, who rarely contests calls, was furious. The referee was booted from the tournament, but that didn't change the outcome of the match.
Calgary Flames fans still consider referee Kerry Fraser Public Enemy No. 1 after the Flames lost Game 4 of the Stanley Cup to Tampa Bay, 1-0, following a controversial Fraser call. Fans littered the ice with cups and balled-up napkins in protest. Fraser is the same guy who made a call against Calgary in double overtime of Game 3 against Montreal in 1989, and Flames fans haven't forgotten.
Oakland Raiders fans still stew over the 2002 playoff loss to the New England Patriots that led to the Brady Rule. Italian soccer fans still think they were gypped by the refs at the 2002 World Cup. And Colts general manager Bill Polian was so incensed with the officiating at last year's AFC championship loss to the Patriots that he sent 20 plays to the league for review.
In other words, Gators, you are not alone.
Even your bitter rivals, the Miami Hurricanes, know how you feel. More than a year and a half has passed, and still, the Miami faithful haven't completely gotten over The Call that put a quick end to their national championship celebration at the Fiesta Bowl in January 2003.
The replays and mere mention of the name Terry Porter still make Miami fans' blood boil.
Ohio State trails, 24-17. The Buckeyes have fourth-and-three at the Miami five. Craig Krenzel steps back, throws a pass to the right-hand corner of the end zone. Buckeyes receiver Chris Gamble and Miami defensive back Glenn Sharpe go up for it. The ball drops. Four seconds later _ or, an eternity, if you ask Hurricane fans _ field judge Terry Porter throws a flag and calls pass interference as jubilant Miami players spill onto the field to celebrate their apparent national title.
Ohio State then scores from the one. Game over. Buckeyes, not Hurricanes, are national champions.
"For a moment there, we had won the national title," Miami athletic director Paul Dee said. "I was already on the field with the president Donna Shalala, celebrating. Then, the flag came, and the call was made, and all of a sudden, instead of the game being over and you being the national champion, you are devastated, gutted. All your emotions deflate."
Dee said he is basically past it, but the feeling of being cheated flares up whenever the topic arises.
"There are degrees of getting over it," Dee said. "Initially, it's a real downer, and that stage lasts a while. You harbor that call for a while because people are still talking about it, writing about it, the replays are showing on TV. Then, you have to see the Sports Illustrated with them as national champs. All those things are reminders that keep that feeling alive.
"But over time, it relieves itself. That old saying that `Time heals all wounds' applies here, too. But you don't forget. And whenever someone brings it up, or whenever you see a bad call that impacts the outcome of another game, those memories creep up and you think about it again. The feeling isn't as sharp, but it's still there."
Doug Brown, director of the Bull Gators booster organization, said his phone rang off the hook last Monday and his e-mail box was overflowing with messages from UF fans who felt violated by the controversial call in the Tennessee loss. "The fans feel helpless, so it makes them feel better to call here and make sure it is being addressed," Brown said. "The coaches and players can turn their attention to Kentucky on the Monday after a tough loss, but the fans stew on it until the next week's game. They are irritated, and they want to do something about it, but there really is nothing they can do.
"Sunday, our fans were still shaking their heads, wondering how that call was made. By Monday, they're still mad, but calming down. By Wednesday, most people are over it. But some of our fans are so passionate they will be talking about this all season and on to next year. That's why we love our fans, because they care so much. But that means they hurt even more than the players sometimes when things go wrong."
Johnny Lynch has seen bad calls from the point of view of a player and fan. He was a quarterback on the Florida team in 1996 and 1997, and now works for a land developer in Palm Beach. He was not as bothered by last week's controversial call as some of his co-workers.
"There was no doubt that was a bad call, and our inclination is to want to hit the ref on the head, but if the Gators hadn't gone into a prevent defense, if they hadn't gone conservative when Tennessee had nine men in the box, if they had scored from the 1-yard-line, we wouldn't be talking about this ref," Lynch said. "You can only control what you can control, and you can't control the refs. I felt the same after the loss to FSU last year. Everyone was blaming the refs, but that's not really why we lost."
Winn said blaming refs for losses is a mechanism fans use to cope. When the team is victorious, he said, fans like to declare "We won!" When the team loses, fans are likely to say "They lost" or "The refs ripped us off."
"It makes people feel better to blame someone for their problems rather than address their own shortcomings, and that is true of sports fans, too," Wann said. "Blaming the ref is a lot easier than admitting your team wasn't good enough to win."
© 2004, The Miami Herald.
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