By Steve Williams

Basketball referees are human. They make mistakes.

I know. I’ve made a few in my time.

Fortunately, the rule book allows for some mistakes to be corrected. But a referee has to own up to his or her error, before this can happen.

In a Class AA girls state sectional clash on March 1, Grainger at Fulton, an official, from all accounts, made a mistake near the end of the overtime game that allowed the Lady Falcons to score the winning basket and qualify for the TSSAA state tournament.

Huge game. Huge stakes. Huge mistake.

But the worst part is it could have been corrected by rule, but wasn’t.

All it took was for the erring official to step up and admit to having an inadvertent whistle.

What does it take to take that step?

Answer: Professionalism. Character. Courage.

His officiating partners also are guilty if they heard the toot and didn’t do anything to correct it.

I bring this to light because I don’t want to see it happen again.

I saw a team done wrong. I saw players still crying long after the game. I heard the helpless feeling in a head coach’s voice.

“I’ve been down there with a group of kids,” said Grainger coach Justin Combs, after the 57-55 loss ended his team’s season. “There’s no explanation you can give them for the way that game ended.

“The referee right in front of me blew his whistle and everybody stopped and for whatever reason, they wouldn’t stop the game. They let the game continue. They ran off the floor without explaining anything to me or anybody or huddling up to talk about it.

“With TSSAA officials, there’s no accountability. There’s no course of action we’ve got. We can’t appeal. We can’t do anything. It would have been as simple as him saying, ‘It was an inadvertent whistle,’ and give them the ball out of bounds. At least at that point, we can get our defense set, my kids don’t stop playing. (Instead) they get a free layup on the other end.

“It’s just a hard way for that game to end. We might have gotten beat (anyway). They could have hit a shot at the end and had they with our defense set, then all is fair.

“I don’t know why he blew his whistle. He could have called a walk, foul, there’s a number of things he could have called, but the whistle blew and that means play stops. A lot of people heard it.”

I didn’t hear it. I was on the opposite side of the court from Coach Combs and his team’s bench, covering the game for The Knoxville Focus.

But I know of two others who did hear it. One person is a respected high school official himself who was at the game as a spectator. The other person was Jody Wright, Fulton High assistant principal and boys head basketball coach who was on site as a game director.

“There was a brief whistle,” said Wright. “I was standing on the baseline, the Grainger bench’s side. It wasn’t a prolonged whistle.

“The players on the other side of the court (where ball came loose) probably didn’t hear it. Do I think it impacted the play? No. I don’t know if anybody stopped.

“It’s a hard way to lose the game. A tough, tough way to lose. It was a battle and you hate for a tarnish mark on the game either way.”

Hopefully, the TSSAA can use this incident as a training tool for officials throughout the state.

Title it: “True Confessions of a Ref” or “The Gutless Getaway” or simply “Doing What’s Right.”

As for the guilty officials, they need to hang up their whistles. They are lacking in professionalism, character and/or courage. If they don’t step down on their own, the TSSAA should ban them.

The four seniors in Grainger’s starting lineup will never be in another high school game. Why should these guys?

I don’t think I’m being too harsh. Just ask Skylar McBee and A.W. Davis and all the good folks in Grainger County. Heck, even Fulton folks don’t like to win a big game like that

Coach Combs put a positive spin on it.

“The only explanation that I could give the kids is that the good Lord has got some sort of plan for us and he’s teaching us some some sort of lesson through this loss. And we just got to look at it that way and learn how to be better people from this moment. I think that’s the only thing we can do.

“I hate that the careers of these seniors ended that way. But again, there’s a reason for it, they’ll learn from it and they’ll be better people somewhere down the line because of this.”

Maybe one of them will become a referee. There should be at least one opening today.