In Mass., A Football Call Draws Controversy

Robert Siegel speaks with Robert Holmes, Boston Globe high school sports editor, about the controversial call on Massachusetts high school football player Matt Owens. Owens raised his arm at the 24-yard line as he ran for a touchdown during a game, but the touchdown was nullified because Owens displayed unsportsmanlike conduct.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, a game of football that was decided by a fist. Boston's Cathedral High trailed Blue Hills in the final minutes of a division championship game on Saturday. Matt Owens, the Cathedral quarterback, took the ball on an end around and broke free.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SIEGEL: He sprinted practically untouched for a game-winning 56-yard touchdown - or so he thought. As he ran around the 25-yard line, the exuberant Owens briefly raised his fist in the air in celebration. And that fist, the referee said, was a little too exuberant. A flag was thrown for excessive celebration. The touchdown was called back. On the next play, Owens threw an interception. There were a few minutes left in the game, but that ended his team's best scoring chance, and Cathedral High lost.

The outcry over the referee's call was just beginning, though. And joining me now on the line is Bob Holmes. He's the high school sports editor for The Boston Globe. Welcome to the program.

ROBERT HOLMES: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: First question, was the call that the refs made correct? Was the quarterback actually violating a rule against celebrations?

HOLMES: It was absolutely correct. It's when you throw in all the emotional stuff that goes with it, that's when it gets foggy, that's when it gets, oh, a little tough to handle for a lot of people, but it was the right call.

SIEGEL: Tell me about the rule, and is it a rule that coaches and players all knew about?

HOLMES: They absolutely all knew about it. It's a relatively new rule this year, and Massachusetts is one of two states, along with Texas, that follows the NCAA rule book. And the goal here is to keep those silly celebrations that we all see on Sunday with the NFL from trickling down to both college and high school. It was really a black-and-white issue. You're not allowed to raise your hand like that. I think the official probably feels like the Christmas Scrooge right now, but I think he did the right thing.

SIEGEL: But on the interception play that followed, the defending team, those guys were all raising their hands, and the fellow who intercepted the ball runs off the field, raising his fist or wagging his finger, but that's not a violation.

HOLMES: Yeah. There are a lot of crazy things too. And if you follow most plays, even in high school, the running back runs into the end zone, and even if the running back does nothing, usually if you look behind him 10 yards, the offensive linemen are raising their hands up, and that we would think would be a violation and certainly worse than raising your hand for the moment. But the difference is the linemen do not have possession of the football.

SIEGEL: The player with possession of the football who is scoring may not celebrate.

HOLMES: He may not.

SIEGEL: Well, Boston is known for - how shall I put it politely - uninhibited and expressive sports fans who speak their minds. What is in the air today about this or in the past couple of days about this decision? What are people thinking there?

HOLMES: Oh, it's all the emotions, that this quarterback had, you know, the thrill of his lifetime pulled from him. How dare they do that? And again, that's, you know, I understand that. It makes sense. It's the emotional side of things. But really, the buzz is that this kid was wronged by the system.

SIEGEL: Is the rule clear enough so that when you're watching Matt Owens on the video run downfield, you can tell at what point his arm is raised high enough to be a penalty, or could he have held his arm out laterally and not been in violation, or just held a thumb up or something like that?

HOLMES: Oh, that is a great, great question, and these things happen so quick. You know, there's really no time for the official to judge this. You have to assume the official was running right beside him and didn't think it was just an involuntary arm shooting off to the side. But, boy, that's a gray area, and to an extent, I think it took a lot of guts to throw the flag as well.

SIEGEL: Well, is the man who threw the penalty flag, is he now in the high school football officials' official protection program in Massachusetts?

HOLMES: Yeah. I think he must be. For the most part, he's been silent. Nobody has heard from him. His name has not been publicized, and that's probably a good thing because I'm guessing he wouldn't get much fan mail or Christmas presents from anyone at Cathedral. You know, I'm guessing that the football officials, his fellow football officials out there are probably applauding his decision.

SIEGEL: Well, Bob Holmes, thanks for talking with us about it.

HOLMES: Oh, thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Bob Holmes, high school sports editor for The Boston Globe.

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