Calling pass interference is a ticklish business, particularly in pro football, where millions evaluate replays on TV and one blown call can cost a team big money in the playoffs.
The latest controversy in this area boiled up during last Sunday's NFC championship game, in which two interference calls against the San Francisco 49 ers helped set up Washington's 25-yard, game-winning field goal with 40 seconds left.
San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh said he wouldn't file a protest because it wouldn't change anything. But he did sound off, criticizing the league for allowing debatable interference calls to ''almost dictate the outcome of important games.'' Walsh believes officials shouldn't call anything if there is a glimmer of doubt.
That actually seems to be the league's policy too. ''We always tell our officials to let the players decide the outcome of the game,'' Art McNally, the NFL's supervisor of officials, was quoted as saying in the Boston Globe.
The most controversial of the two calls in Sunday's contest occurred when 49 er defensive back Eric Wright supposedly prevented Redskin receiver Art Monk from catching a long pass. The 27-yard pass interference penalty moved the ball to the San Francisco 18, putting Washington in field goal range.
A somewhat similar situation happened in Super Bowl XIII five years ago. With Pittsburgh clinging to a 21-17 lead in the fourth quarter, Steeler receiver Lynn Swann and Dallas defender Benny Barnes got tangled up on a pass play. Even from the replays it wasn't totally clear who was at fault, if either player, for their falling, yet Barnes was called for interfering. The Steelers capitalized on the 33-yard pickup, scoring a touchdown soon after that appeared to be a turning point in Pittsburgh's 35-31 victory.
One aspect of the interference penalty that makes it so hard to call is that both receiver and defender have a right to the ball. And with both players running side by side looking up at the ball, it's not unusual for there to be contact. Such incidental contact, according to the rule book, is permissible, yet sorting out what is incidental and what is not is an extremely difficult split-second judgment.
The league has taken some of the pressure off the refs by saying interference can only occur on catchable passes. That, however, is not always easy to judge, since the official can't really watch for contact and gauge the flight of the ball at the same time. This may explain why the officials felt the pass to Monk was catchable, while Art himself said afterward it wasn't.
The real fly in the already sticky ointment is the stiffness of the interference penalty, which moves the ball to the spot of the infraction when the defense is guilty. That sometimes means as much as 30 or 40 yards on a long throw, and when the act occurs in the end zone, the offense is given a first down on the 1-yard line. The penalty for offensive pass interference is 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. Given these punishments, most officials think twice about dropping their flags.
Maybe one way of defusing the interference call somewhat would be to lessen the penalty for non-flagrant occurrences. Sure, that forces officials to make yet another judgment call, but they currently are asked to determine the severity of face mask violations (5 yards for grasping, 15 for twisting, turning , or pulling), and they generally do so quite well. Blatant inference, in which an opponent is shoved with both hands, could still be a big penalty, but less serious acts of hindering could cost 10 yards, let's say. Utah's jazzy Dantley
The Utah Jazz franchise has discarded its stigma as one of pro basketball's perennial losers and become the winningest club in the Western Conference.
Impossible, you say? Well, maybe it shouldn't seem that way for a team that boasts tremendous firepower in Adrian Dantley, who led all NBA scorers during the 1980-81 season and is the current scoring leader with 30.7 points per game.
His most incredible feat to date was making 28 of 29 free throw attempts against Houston last week. He had 46 points altogether, but the free throws tied the league's single game record set by Wilt Chamberlain, who made 28 of 32 in his famous 100-point night with Philadelphia in 1962. What's in a name?
Maybe nobody places too much significance in nicknames, but anyone who does has to wonder about the trend toward sinister-sounding labels in the United States Football League.
During the league's inaugural season, Tampa Bay had the Bandits and Oakland the Invaders. But the image of violence or questionable activity will escalate this spring, with expansion teams in Pittsburgh, Oklahoma, San Antonio, and Houston calling themselves the Maulers, Outlaws, Gunslingers, and Gamblers, respectively.
Some people in Pittsburgh have expressed outrage with Maulers, saying it doesn't reflect what the city is all about. And though Gamblers was chosen to refer to a no-holds-barred style of play and not illicit activity, a nickname that conjures up any association with betting should have been avoided. Broadcaster Jim McKay on the US hockey team's triumph at Lake Placid in 1980: ''There has never been anything like it in the history of sport. I challenge anyone to come up with anything that is even close to it. The only comparison I can make would be if they got an all-star team of Canadian college football players together and let them play a full season together and then come down and beat the Washington Redskins.''