When there is a national brouhaha over football officiating, three phenomena are usually present:

  • A flurry of close calls by game officials.
  • A very large number of television viewers.
  • Many partisans for the team seemingly wronged.

    These are the three elements that underlie the Super Bowl discussions this week, most obviously in the Far West, where there was strong sectional and sentimental support for Seattle, a 21-10 loser to Pittsburgh in Sunday's game.

    In such a situation, critics feel wronged by what they call blind or conspiring referees. The possibility of coincidence is usually ridiculed or dismissed out of hand. And conspiracy theories proliferate.

    The truth, however, lies elsewhere. Football officiating is, simply, one of the most difficult tasks American males are asked to perform.

    Compare it with baseball officiating, for instance. Usually, a plate umpire is only asked to look at one thing, a ball that might be in or out of the strike zone. And judging by replays, he often gets that wrong.

    A base umpire may have several benchmarks, among them a ball, a base, a glove and a man's foot or hand --- but at the moment that counts, they're all compressed into easy reading distance. Yet judging by replays, many mistakes are made.

    By contrast, a football official working a high-speed pass play must take instant note of a sideline, which is in one place; a receiver's hands, which are in another place or places, often high above the field; his feet, which are in other places; his opponent's positions and actions, and the ball and other variables in a large and complex environment. It isn't like reading a book.

    Working a high-speed running play, other officials are asked to instantly judge whether the several blockers and defensive players in their jurisdiction are all blocking and fighting off blocks legally as they crash and tumble, and to determine, in this human maelstrom, if anyone is holding --- as holding is legally defined --- or grabbing a face mask or hitting too low or hitting with his helmet or . . . . the possibilities go on and on. For a game official, it's not like a walk in the park.

    The explanation for controversial calls in big games lies neither in conspiracy nor faulty sight. The explanation is that no mere human can officiate football flawlessly.

    Bob Oates is at oatesinla@aol.com Previous columns: latimes.com/oates