“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” —Jesus

It’s the no-call seen ‘round the world!

In the closing minutes of the NFC Championship game, Ram cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman commits a blatant interference penalty with a helmet-to-helmet hit on Tommylee Lewis inside the 5-yard line, forcing the Saints to settle for a 31-yard field goal that made it 23-20 with less than two minutes to play in regulation. As you probably have heard, an overtime and two long field goals later, and the Rams escaped with a 26-23 victory and a trip to the Super Bowl.

It’s been almost two weeks of constant whining from understandably angry Saint fans, open letters to the NFL Commissioner, civic lawsuits, even an entire American city threatening a city-wide boycott of the Super Bowl. Add it all up and the NFL Competition Committee is under significant pressure to figure out how to eliminate such apocalyptic moments from happening in the future.

Personally, I just think human error is what it is—teams have always had to put up with that reality and move forward. (It’s not the first egregious mistake that a referee has made in a big game.) But I’m evidently in the minority. I heard one guy scream about how it’s not just that one official whiffed, but FOUR officials were in position to see the play and failed to make the call. So, one suggestion that’s been thrown around this week is for NFL officiating crews to add an eighth member for playoff games, insuring better coverage, I guess.

The funny thing is, research has consistently shown that prosocial behavior is actually inhibited by the presence of others, primarily because individuals in a group attempt to behave in ways designed to protect them against embarrassment. Simply stated, the more people who witness injustice, the less likely it is that any of them will say anything about it.

Back in the 1960’s, Latane and Darley first tested that hypothesis by recruiting male students to be interviewed about life at Columbia University. As the students arrived, they were shown to a waiting room and asked to take a seat to fill out a questionnaire. Shortly afterward, smoke began to billow from a vent in the wall. The researchers wondered if a subject would respond to an unexpected problem by reporting it, and how quickly the response would be made. They were either in the room alone, with two other subjects, or with two confederates who made no comment and remained calm, seemingly oblivious to the smoke. After several minutes, the experiment was stopped, even if the subject had not responded, because the smoke was so thick that it was difficult to see across the room.

The presence of others was shown to consistently inhibitresponse to an emergency. Of the subjects who were in the room alone, 75 percent responded to the smoke by leaving the room and reporting what was happening. When three subjects were together, someone responded in only 38 percent of the groups. With unconcerned confederates, only 10 percent of the subjects responded—the other 90 percent “coughed, rubbed their eyes, and opened the windows, but they did not report the smoke.” Or, evidently, throw a flag.

Similar situations have been re-created over the years with similar results. In other words, on January 20thin New Orleans, had there been one official in proximity to the play, there would have been a much better chance that a flag would be thrown. With four officials watching closely, there was significantly less of a chance, as all four would be more likely to think, “If they didn’t see it, then I must not have either.” So, evidently, having one more referee would have only made things worse, not better.

When all the dust settles in this debate, human error will still be the unfortunate reality of yet another aspect of our lives. But the last two weeks have also reminded us of how quick we are to elevate the mistakes of others while ignoring our own. We’d rather scream about a no call in the closing minutes of a playoff game than look back at questionable coaching decisions or turnovers we made during the first three-plus quarters—mistakes that put us in a position to need a call, even the right call, in the last minute of a game to have a chance to win. We don’t want to talk about that stuff, but only protest how someone else “stole the game from us.”

And then I heard last week that the NFL is investigating a prospective first-round draft choice (Drew Lock from the University of Missouri) because of a report that he cheated on a math test in the ninth grade. The NFL is investigating him? Wow. He said in his own defense that, even with cheating, he still could only pull a C+ on the test.

I don’t write all of this because I’m a Ram fan—they’ve got a long way to go to make up for abandoning me for St. Louis 23 years ago! I actually love the Saints. Drew Brees is one of my favorite people in the League. But from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, it seems that we live in a grace-challenged society. What a contrast to how Jesus taught us to live—to mourn our own mistakes and extend grace when others fail us. Billboards about it, more eyes on it, or even replaying it, won’t bring the comfort we’re looking for. Only the magic of grace can move us forward.

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