Bettors grumble over ref's fumble of call in Steelers' game Sunday

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Maybe this is why your mother told you to never throw away your hard-earned money betting on sports.

For purists among Steelers fans who care only if the team wins, a botched call negating an unexpected touchdown on the game's final play failed to dim their happiness at Sunday's 11-10 win over the San Diego Chargers.

But for gamblers accustomed to risking money on the Steelers' success, the game officials' admitted mistake meant the difference between winning and losing money. That's because they were favored by 4 1/2 or 5 points to win. With that point spread, those betting on the Steelers lost money on the 11-10 score, but would have won wagers if the game ended 17-10 or 18-10.

To bettors, the unexpected twists in the game's final seconds had all the emotional ups and downs of some great immaculate deception. In gamblers' parlance, it's called a "bad beat," only this one was worse than most because the officials erroneously took away points that belonged to the Steelers.

"I said 'No! No! No!' a bunch of times, and then it was just like shock," said Adam, a former North Hills resident who has moved to the Midwest and was willing to discuss losing $450, provided his last name wasn't used.

For him and others, it fanned the conspiracy theories that rummage in the minds of many sports bettors about games possibly being fixed.

"I don't know what the hell's happening, but something was funny in that game," said Mike of Mount Washington, who didn't mean "ha-ha" funny after losing $110 on the game.

Adam, Mike and a Steelers Nation worth of bettors were dumbfounded by the amount of time officials spent conversing about, and then reversing, a fumble returned for a touchdown by Troy Polamalu. It came with the Chargers attempting a series of laterals in hopes of their own miraculous touchdown.

The officiating crew then ruled that an illegal forward pass occurred and no TD from the fumble was possible, even though no forward pass was evident on replays. Bettors' emotions evolved over a couple minutes from resignation at losing money to elation at an impossible turnaround to fury at officials who took away the six points (and a seventh from a potential extra point).

"There's no doubt there's a lot of really irritated bettors out there," said Las Vegas-based R.J. Bell, who operates a sports betting information service at www.pregame.com.

He estimated that at least a couple million dollars was wagered on the game at legal sports book operations in Nevada, which he said could equate to $100 million when illegal betting is counted. Although bookmakers try to attract even wagering volume on both teams, more bettors were with the Steelers, evidenced by the point spread moving from 3 1/2 or 4 points early in the week to 4 1/2 or 5 by Sunday.

Jay Rood, race and sports director for the MGM Mirage in Las Vegas, said he was watching the game's end with relief in his office, as that final Steelers touchdown would have been costly in payouts. But the bettors watching on giant TV screens in the room beside him were screaming.

"My supervisor said it was crazy," Mr. Rood said, as the betting outcome kept changing. "People were tearing up their tickets and throwing them away, and then they were digging for them in garbage cans."

He and others in the industry said those who take the bets would prefer that officials get such calls correct, to maintain gamblers' confidence that they've got a fair chance.

"There's plenty of conspiracy people out there," Mr. Rood noted. "But I think the NFL referees are held in high regard among all the leagues. It's a fast game, and there's a lot of guys out there. It's a tough job, and for the most part, they keep the integrity of the game intact."

NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira said yesterday that league officials were taking steps to convene the Competition Committee in a special meeting so they can modify rules interpretations and avoid a recurrence of the bizarre touchdown-or-no situation. Mr. Pereira admitted that referee Scott Green and his crew misinterpreted the rules in disallowing Mr. Polamalu's touchdown.

He hopes the Competition Committee, which oversees rules, can alter the rules so the replay official, who buzzes officials once to review a play, may now be allowed to alert the referee a second time to ensure that they apply rules properly after such a review.

He declined to say if the officials who worked the Steelers-Chargers game have been or would be penalized.

But any penalty that results is unlikely to mollify bettors who lost money or restore confidence in fans like Mike of Mount Washington who wonders whether anything "funny" is going on in the NFL.

As Beano Cook, the ESPN commentator from Pittsburgh, put it: "You know what the cynics are saying today: The officials had the points."


Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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