Sportswriters and broadcasters often speak about athletes or teams achieving moral victories in a contest they have lost. This phrase is used when a significant underdog loses by a much closer margin than predicted, or when a competitor comes up short on the scoreboard but wins over the crowd to a greater degree than the victor. The athletes and players sometimes buy into this reasoning, snatching the thrill of not quite a victory from the jaws of definite defeat. Moral victories are not credited on any scoreboard. Only wins, losses, and ties are officially recognized.
The more significant a game is, the less weight a so called moral victory will carry. It may be relatively easy to feel good about a tough loss at the beginning of a season, but as the stakes are raised, such a pill becomes increasingly bitter to swallow. In professional football, the Super Bowl is the biggest game there is. Otherwise it would be called something like the Mediocre Bowl. The Super Bowl is arguably the top event in all of sports. Companies don’t spend enough money to purchase a Third World country for the opportunity to advertise their products during the championships of baseball, or basketball, or tennis, or bowling. But when it comes to the Super Bowl, people lose their minds. How else to explain why a respectable woman like Janet Jackson would bare a breast as if she was one of the Bush twins celebrating Mardi Gras in pre-Katrina New Orleans? People who don’t watch an entire football game all season decide to throw parties that revolve around a game featuring two teams they could care less about. The Super Bowl is so special that it is not named by a mere number, but by a pretentious roman numeral. Super Bowl Sunday would probably be declared a national holiday if it didn’t happen to fall on the weekend.
Super Bowl XL featured the Seattle Seahawks versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a New York Jets fan, the outcome was of minimal interest to me. I watched with hope of a close, exciting football game interrupted by highly entertaining commercials and absolutely no stripping at halftime by any member of the Rolling Stones. Two out of three would have to do. The Stones mercifully kept their clothes on, though they were censored to omit a couple dirty words from their songs. The Super Bowl has never pretended to be about freedom of speech. As for the game that surrounded their performance, it was a fairly dull affair that the Steelers won in spite of their tepid play. Not that the Seahawks played considerably better, for they managed to squander a number of opportunities. Yet it cannot be denied that they gained more yards, earned more first downs, held the ball longer, and committed fewer turnovers than the Steelers. This combination is typically a recipe for victory in the NFL, but Super Bowl Extra Large turned out to be the exception to prove the rule. As critical as these ingredients to success are, there are numerous other aspects of a football game that help determine its outcome. One of them is refereeing, and it played an especially large part in the latest Super Bowl.
There were four questionable calls that kept the Seahawks from outscoring the Steelers despite the fact that they were otherwise dominating the game. An offensive pass interference call in the end zone took a touchdown away from the Seahawks. The receiver’s hand did make brief, seemingly light contact with the defender’s chest, but many would argue (I among them) that no penalty should have been called and the touchdown should have stood. The second questionable call was a touchdown given to the Steelers quarterback even though it appeared in replay that the ball never reached the goal line until after he was down on the ground. Had it been ruled fourth and inches rather than a score, the Steelers may have opted to kick a field goal. Or they may have gone for it on fourth down and failed to score. Instead they were given six critical points. The third questionable call took place when the Seahawks quarterback completed a pass that would have given them first and goal on the 1-yard line with a huge chance looming to take the lead. But holding was called against an offensive lineman. Slow motion replay did not show any clear case of holding on the play. Finally, after throwing his lone interception of the game, Matt Hasselbeck made the subsequent tackle. Inexplicably he was penalized for throwing an illegal block on a player that he did not even touch.
Three of these four penalties were judgment calls. Pass interference can be called far more frequently than it is in the NFL, because receivers and cornerback routinely make contact with each other when routes are being run and defended. Unless a push off gives one player clear advantage over the other while the ball is airborne, interference should not be called. Holding by players on either the offense or defense can be called on just about every play in every pro football game. Unless the grab is especially blatant, the referee should keep the whistle out of his mouth. Otherwise, NFL games would last about 24 hours. The touchdown run granted to Ben Roethlisberger was so close that the referee probably went with his gut rather than his eyesight when making the call. Many of those who went with what their eyes saw believe that he came up short. As for the penalty on Hasselbeck that improved the Steelers field position and help set up a subsequent touchdown, it never should have been called, and once called, it should have been rescinded. There is no line on the stat sheet for “big breaks”, but because the Pittsburgh Steelers received all of them in this game, they were rewarded with the official victory while the Seattle Seahawks had to make due with the moral one. Only problem with that is, there are no moral victories when it comes to the Super Bowl. One team gets the glory, the other waits till next year.
The coach of the Seahawks has publicly complained about the Super Bowl officiating, and the NFL has officially defended it. If the league did agree with Mike Holmgren that his team got jobbed, they wouldn’t have done anything other than issue a meaningless apology like they did a couple weeks ago after an interception by the Steelers in their playoff game against the Colts was incorrectly ruled to be an incomplete pass. This time around, the Steelers were on the favorable side of the dubious calls. Unlike ballgames played in the street by less physically blessed competitors, there are no do-overs in professional sports. Even if the NFL demanded that the Steelers and Seahawks replayed the game, there’s just no way that Budweiser and Pepsi would pay those astronomical advertising costs again so soon, and I doubt the Rolling Stones can fit another halftime gig into their schedule. People probably would not throw parties or set up betting pools for the rematch. In other words, it simply would not be the same. So the result of Super bowl XL will stand as is. Jerome Bettis gets to go out on top and the story of his triumphant return to his hometown of Detroit requires no editing. The Steelers win “one for the thumb” (i.e. their 5th championship) and cement their reputation as road warriors after earning all of their postseason victories outside of Pittsburgh, even if the crowd on Super Bowl Sunday was overwhelmingly partisan towards them. As for the Seahawks, they have no recourse but to stare in wonder at the stat sheet they dominated, dwell for a bit on what might have been if only fate did not have other plans, then shake off the sting of defeat and focus their vision on XLI.