At the postgame press conference following Stanford’s victory over UCLA in the NCAA women’s water polo championship on Sunday, I saw a man at his most vulnerable — Bruins head coach Brandon Brooks couldn’t stop the tears from freely flowing down his face and his voice broke multiple times as he tried to give his opening statement.
And nobody could blame him — not me, not any of the other media members in the room, not UCLA junior Charlotte Pratt sitting next to him. Brandon Brooks had just singlehandedly cost UCLA the national championship, and everybody in the room knew it.
The violation that he committed fell under a rule that isn’t often invoked and, in fact, had only been introduced in its current form at the start of this season. That didn’t sit right with a lot of people on the UCLA side, and (as it always does in a case like this) the question arose: Is it in the place of referees to decide an outcome of this magnitude, or should it “be decided on the field?”
I’ve always hated this question. Regardless of the circumstances, rules are rules — no matter how new they are, how people feel about them or the question of whether they truly belong or not. The goal of a championship (or a game, for that matter) is to decide which team is better than the other given both their skills and the agreed-upon rules of the game, the league or what have you.
It always irks me when fans and journalists alike bash referees for “putting themselves in the game” in high-leverage situations, because who are we to arbitrarily decide when a rule should be enforced or not? Why should referees and umpires be lauded for being consistent in some situations, yet receive the same praise in others when they blatantly turn a blind eye to violations of the rules that it is their duty to enforce? Who decides whether a situation is “high-leverage” enough where the rules can be thrown out the window?
The problem is that there aren’t ever clear-cut, objective answers to these questions, and it’s thus irresponsible and negligent to the spirit of the game and to the players and coaches that have prepared according to certain rules to neglect those rules according to arbitrary perspectives of what’s “pure” or “right.”
Is it unfortunate that such an evenly-matched, hotly-contested matchup like Stanford-UCLA on Sunday was decided by a rule violation? Absolutely, and UCLA fans have every right to be angry about that. What I won’t stand for is UCLA fans being angry at the referees for doing their jobs and “making the call when it should have been decided in the pool.”
Brooks is paid good money to not just prepare his team for games, but also to make accurate, in-the-moment decisions during the games themselves to lead them to victory. He failed in the latter on Sunday, and it’s right that he was punished for that.
And given what I know about the circumstances and what he said at the press conference, it’s not like he was unaware of the rules or had any issues with the rules being enforced, either. There was a detailed memorandum sent out before the start of this season explaining the rule change, and looking back at the full replay video, it’s pretty clear that the air horn signaling the calling of a timeout occurred long after UCLA goalkeeper Sami Hill relinquished possession of the ball.
If the call was disputed, that would be one thing. But nobody denies that it was the right call, and that’s what matters and should always matter — getting it right, regardless of the context.
It’s the same in basketball, in baseball or wherever else this may arise. If it’s a blocking foul, a blocking foul should be called. If it’s a charge, a charge should be called. Pass interference and holding calls are made all the time in high-leverage circumstances that drastically affect the outcomes of games, and Brandon Brooks and the entire UCLA team knew that it wasn’t the referees’ fault that they were the ones in tears at the end of the game — it was their own. Asking whether that rule is justified is one thing, but in the end, a rule is a rule, whether people agree with it or not.
UCLA fans have every reason to be angry and sad at the outcome of Sunday’s national title match — but only at the outcome, and not at the referees that objectively made the right call.
Help remind Do-Hyoung Park that any refs who make a call against your team, regardless of circumstance, fully deserve the ire we subject them to dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.