The method behind the madness

The end of the Baylor-Tennessee women's game was an absolute murderer. Tie game, overtime looming, two missed shots from the overwhelming favorite, a great game in a weekend full of them, when suddenly, a whistle.

It's a foul, and one that didn't need to be called. Tennessee hits two free throws with essentially no time left, Baylor loses and is properly devastated.

And immediately, the shrieks rise up from all corners, "How can the officials decide a game?"

Well, here's a huge surprise for all of you. Officials decide them all the time. They're supposed to.

The foul that decided the Baylor-Tennessee game was a classic fistfight-starter. Jessika Stratton of the Bears collided hard with Tasha Butts on a rebound, a foul under any definition for the first 39 minutes of a game.

But this was with 0.2 seconds left in a tie game in the biggest one-out tournament in the country. Even judging by Tennessee coach Pat Summitt's reaction, she could have lived with a no-call.

And Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson? Inconsolable. It was all there for her team, and then it wasn't.

Still, the notion that the officials shouldn't have decided the game is so wrong as to be frightful. They decided this one just as surely by making the call as they would have if they hadn't.

Why this is such a difficult concept to grasp, even among players, coaches and analysts, is one of the great mysteries of the sport.

And you can extend this truth of the game to the foul troubles the men's teams faced Sunday in the Atlanta and St. Louis regionals as well.

Officials changed all those games, because they change every game. With everything they call, everything they don't. The technical fouls they bestow, and the ones they overlook. The banging under the boards, the zealously called handchecks at 35 feet. All of it.

They are not supposed to be out of the way. They are part of it, in it up to their windpipes in fact, because if they're not, people get hurt, chaos reigns and the sport is ruined.

That's why good officials are hard to come by, the same way that good players are. It's why you tend to see the same guys working the biggest games year after year.

And like the players, every official is different, especially in temperament (see Ted Valentine and Rick Barnes in the tire-fire end of the Texas-Xavier game).

But what they have in common is a willingness to insert themselves when required to see that a game runs the way the players are playing it. It isn't always fair, it isn't always even. It isn't supposed to be, because the games aren't fair, and the games aren't even.

Some insert themselves by driving an SUV down the middle of the court. Others do it in subtle, almost undetectable ways. Some do it differently on different nights, depending on who's playing and how they're playing.

This is how the deal works, this is how it's designed to work, and this is the only way it can work. Officials decide games. Get over it. And in the alternative, shut up until you do.

Back to the jumping-off point, though. Did Baylor get hosed Sunday night?

Yeah, probably, but to claim that, you have to believe that there are different standards for different fouls at different times. It's not a bad philosophy, and a lot of people hold to it. But not everyone agrees with that assessment, either in or out of the game, and until whoever is the emperor of the officials makes a pronouncement on the issue, that's how it's going to stay -- gloriously, maddeningly inconsistent.

None of this does anything for Mulkey-Robertson's check-in-the-overhead-bin migraine today. If she could, she'd still be laying on the floor in Norman, trying to tunnel to Java with her teeth and fingernails.

It was just her cruddy luck, and that of Stratton, that the official on the baseline was a stickler for the a-foul-is-a-foul-is-a-foul school of thinking.

And that's the tournament. Stuff happens to everyone, and some of that stuff happens because an official steps up -- or down. But never forget that they decide games, and they decide them from the start by what they allow and don't, who they listen to and who they don't.

The alternative is officials who are cowards, and you be sure to let us know when you think that's a good idea.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com