It was a scene straight out of a Bud Light commercial. The only difference was this time the referee wasn’t sitting on the bench popping a cold one after tackling the unsuspecting quarterback. At least, I don’t think so. The camera didn’t catch that. The hit? Well, that’s become an internet sensation at this point.
By now most of you have seen the video of SEC umpire Wilbur Hackett Jr. basically laying out South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia with a forearm shiver that would make any linebacker proud. It’s one of the most fascinating clips I’ve seen on YouTube. I’ve watched it at least 20 times, each time hoping I might catch something that would lead me to believe that Hackett was trying to get out of the way. That he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. That he didn’t intentionally hit Garcia.
Each time I watch it I see Garcia run right before switching direction to run left as Hackett runs parallel and follows him the whole time. That’s fine. One colleague joked that Hackett looked like a disciplined linebacker trying to size up a running back for hit, but I’ll give Hackett the benefit of the doubt that he was simply trying to get in good position to watch the play. The problem comes when Hacket, with enough room to get out of the way, literally lunges toward Garcia, plants his right shoulder and forearm into him and drops him.
It’s really one of the most mesmerizing pieces of video you’ll ever see and I dare anyone to watch it just once. It’s not possible. It’s so bizarre that you have to watch it over and over again to believe it and maybe, just maybe, try and understand what Hackett was thinking at the time. During his weekly press conference today, LSU coach Les Miles joked, “We told [Hackett], 'Listen, you've got to use your flipper. You've got to use your forearm.' But, then you have to wrap up. I want you to know that we were disappointed in his effort to be honest with you."
SEC spokesman Charles Bloom, who spoke to SEC coordinator of officials Rodgers Redding about the incident, tried to explain the SEC’s stance on the play to our Stewart Mandel, “The umpire's most vulnerable position on the field is right behind the line of scrimmage and sometimes gets right into the play. In this case, the umpire is there, he tries to defend himself by putting his arms up. The quarterback shifts direction a little bit and he puts his arms up. He makes an attempt to defend himself. I know it may look different on video, but what we see is that he makes an effort to protect himself.”
It looks different on the video, because it is different. If he was trying to defend himself he should have moved to the left (there was plenty of room) instead of moving towards Garcia and getting into his way. If he was trying to put his hands up, well, he should have put his hands up. What he did, and again, all you have to do is look at the video, is intentionally put his shoulder into Garcia. He didn’t have to do that to defend himself. By the way, his first responsibility as an official is to get out of the players’ way and observe the game, not defend himself by hitting players coming at him. If you were trying to get out of someone’s way, would you lean into a hit the way Hackett did?
Now, I don’t think Hackett had any money on the game or tries to hit any player who dares to run at him, but I do think he had a brain freeze. A momentary lapse of judgment where he saw a player run in his direction and instead of sidestepping him, he decided to plant a shoulder into his chest. Thankfully, South Carolina scored a couple players later, making the tackle a moot point on the scoreboard, but that doesn’t mean Hackett shouldn’t be punished. Even if the SEC doesn’t think Hackett intentionally tackled Garcia (if they did, he would no doubt have been fired), the point is he did knock him down at a critical moment in the game. Imagine if that had been the last play of the game and Garcia had a clear path towards the end zone. If that doesn’t warrant at least a one game suspension, I’m not sure what does.