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Mistakes by the Lake

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Bad officiating has been around since the beginning of time ... but is that any reason for Cleveland fans to riot? Here's an incident that shows that Philadelphia sports fans aren't the only fans who sometimes act irrationally.

The date: December 16, 2001. The place: Cleveland Browns Stadium. The game: The visiting Jacksonville Jaguars facing the Browns, in a fierce, bitter AFC Central rivalry dating all the way back to ... 1998.

With the Browns trailing 15-10 in the fourth quarter, and less than a minute left in the game, Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch threw a pass to wide receiver Quincy Morgan on fourth down, initially ruled as a complete pass by the referees (even though television replays showed that Morgan never had complete possession of the ball).

On the next play, Couch spiked the ball into the ground to stop the clock, with the team having previously used all three of its timeouts.

Suddenly, a challenge was issued by the officials in the replay booth, citing that the play to Morgan was in fact an incomplete pass. Showing a blatant disrespect for the NFL rule book, the on-field referees reversed the Morgan call even though another play had been run (Couch spiking the ball).

Regardless of whether the instant replay showed the pass as being complete or incomplete, it was too late and the call should have stood as a completed pass.

Naturally, Browns fans were up in arms over what happened. Hundreds of plastic beer bottles, as well as other assorted debris, littered the field. For 25 minutes, the field was evacuated for the safety of the players, coaches and referees (who appeared to be the target of most of the litter). One person was hospitalized and many were arrested. The game was resumed only after NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue forced the teams to play out the final seconds of the game. Even after the game was officially over, the few fans who remained threw more objects at the refs as they ran off the field.

Amazingly, the coverage of this event was not as big as it would have been had it happened in say, a city like ... Philadelphia. Sports websites such as CBS SportsLine and ESPN.com did not have it as the main article on their home page - instead a picture of Bears quarterback Jim Miller was featured prominently on both sides, after Chicago earned their first playoff berth since 1994. The lead story on ESPNís NFL Primetime with Chris Berman and Tom Jackson was of the Detroit Lions winning their first game of the season after defeating the Minnesota Vikings.

Had this happened in Philadelphia, it would have been on the front page of every single newspaper in the United States for about a week. ďTypical Philly fans,Ē the announcers would probably say, as they tried to think of as many jokes about the City of Brotherly Love as they possibly could. To illustrate my point, just look at the big deal that was made about a Philadelphia Eagles preseason game being cancelled because of problems with the new turf. It was the lead story on virtually every sports website.

One moron throws batteries at Cardinals outfielder J.D. Drew at Veterans Stadium, and to this day outsider fans use that isolated incident as the barometer on which to judge ALL Philadelphia sports fans.

Or they use the classic example of Eagles fans once booing Santa Claus, yet few actually know the story behind the jeers. Over 30 years ago, when the Eagles still played their home games at Franklin Field, a man dressed up in a shabby, worn-out Santa Claus outfit ran around the stadium during halftime of an Eagles-Vikings game. He was supposed to throw gifts into the stands as he ran around the stadium, but his arm was so weak that he never made it into the stands, hence the boos.

But a riot in Cleveland, where people get arrested and hundreds of fans end up throwng beer bottles at referees, is swept under the rug and treated as a minor story, a proverbial blip on the radar screen.

No one ever brings up the incident at Dodger Stadium several years ago, when the game was called off after fans threw bats on the field. Very few still discuss the game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. where snowballs were thrown on the field and at various people on the sidelines.

Am I condoning what the fans in Philadelphia did, while bashing the fans in Cleveland and other cities? No, Iím just saying that sports fans are basically no better or no worse in Philadelphia than they are in any other city; the only major difference is that they have different rooting interests. But rowdy and unruly behavior, especially at a sporting event, is uncalled for. In fact, I was disappointed by comments the Browns owner and general manager made during post-game press conferences basically tolerating what happened.

As a result of the Browns losing the ball on downs, Jacksonville got the ball back, and Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell kneeled down to end the game. Final score: Jaguars 15, Browns 10.

E-mail Jared Byrd at jbyrd002@yahoo.com.

This article was written December 17, 2001.

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