Are Lions Really Getting So Much Help From Zebras?

Going into this past weekend’s National Arena League action, four teams controlled their own destiny. Win out, and any would claim the top seed and home field advantage this postseason. But after downing the visiting Jacksonville Sharks, 48-43, on Saturday, the Columbus Lions now have sole possession of that claim today as conspiracy theories about the officiating down in Columbus gather social media momentum.

Sure, the game had an ample inventory of questionable calls, but in an official’s world the litmus test of ‘non-partisan’ is whether both sides complained equally. By-and-large they did on Saturday, in quantity if not in theatrics. For the prosecution, Sharks fullback Derrick Ross – who was called for back-to-back holds midway through the fourth quarter on a drive that ultimately stalled – QB Patrick McCain, and DB Marvin Ross repeatedly pleaded their team’s case in demonstrative on-field performances, while the opposition answered only with mild-mannered commentary from the Columbus broadcast crew, who lobbied support for a plethora of “missed calls” perpetrated on their clients.

But that equilibrium may have been tipped out of balance with 4:25 remaining in the game.

On a third-and-ten from his own 4-yard line and leading by six, Lions QB Mason Espinosa missed wide-out Triston Purifoy on a deep slant, but the pass breakup drew an interference penalty on Sharks defensive back Seth Ellis. As it happens, Purifoy was not interfered with, but that is a conclusion I could only reach with assistance from the exceptional replay capabilities of CTV, the game’s broadcast network. Given the angle at which Ellis converged on Purifoy and the back judge’s position, hanky-panky appeared to play a part in that incompletion and the flags flew.

There is no question the call had a significant part in determining the game’s outcome. Columbus was given an automatic first down on their own 14, where they extended the drive another eight plays and 3:39 of game clock, culminating in a field goal that put them up by two possessions with only 46 seconds remaining. But a key play on that drive was Purifoy’s third-and-ten catch along the left dasher boards with 2:10 to go, setting up a first-and-goal. The Sharks’ loose zone coverage wasn’t anywhere near that play, so why they should get the benefit of the doubt in hypothetically stopping the Lions earlier had Columbus not gotten the PI call is the stuff of which conspiracy theories are born.

You know you’ve arrived when the refs start getting the blame for a game’s outcome. In lower leagues like the AAL and EIFL, illegal roster tampering and defective venues are the go-to excuses, but in big-time football it is the officiating. It’s been that way since before the advent of instant replay, which gave the common fan a huge advantage over refs and empowered us to call them out for their incompetence. Even with coaching challenges, which were introduced in the NAL last year, calls continuously go against our team and benefit their team.

So, with the Columbus Lions usurping the role of front-runner, they are now everyone else’s their team. It’s a logical leap to see they have pulled out so many close games – particularly in the Columbus Civic Center – only by the grace of five hometown accomplices dressed as zebras. Hell, the Lions have already won three games by less than three points this season. Two have been in Columbus, including a one-point win over the Massachusetts Pirates the previous week after they trailed by 16 points in the third quarter. Where else do these things happen?

Of course, we forget they also lost to those same Pirates after holding a 15-point third quarter lead up in Worcester in May. That’s the thing about circumstantial evidence: we get to pick what suits us.

So, for the sake of this league’s integrity, how about a look at evidence of a more empirical value?

According to NAL Director of Officials Joe Clarkson, two members of Saturday’s five-man crew were actually from Jacksonville, although he declined to identify the back judge involved in the controversial PI call, and for good reason. The other three were Georgians, but from well outside the Columbus area. Apparently, he assigns crews based not on team partisanship as we’d theorized, but on a ‘best available’ basis.

And there’s the overwhelming majority of calls this crew got right, like a drop-kicked conversion that really did hit the ground, the Sharks’ run in which Ross really was tackled inbounds, an intended pass that Sharks receiver Chris Gilchrist really did not come up with as he went over the dasher boards, and an onside kick attempt that really did touch a Sharks player. Any one of those calls could have likewise changed this game, albeit not as directly.

Yes, it is because of Saturday’s crew that every other team must now count on another to beat the Lions in order to avoid a trip to the Columbus Civic Center in August, where the home team has won 11 straight games dating back to April 2017. That’s how it should be. Anything less would have meant a split crew capitulating to the dramatics of a Sharks team looking for some reason to explain their loss other than the obvious: the Lions are better.

So, let’s enjoy more ref-bashing and conspiracy talk, but let’s also bask in our good fortune to engage in such frivolity. At least we’re not blaming illegal rosters and run-down arenas for NAL outcomes.

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