Time After Time 

The clock is not what we thought it was

If you missed last week’s Tennessee-Rutgers game, or have since “misremembered” it, the strange finish went something like this: With Tennessee trailing by one point and less than two seconds to go in regulation time, a free-for-all ensued under the basket as the Lady Vols scrambled for the rebound and a chance to put up a game-winning shot. Tennessee center Nicky Anosike came down with the offensive board and was fouled attempting a lay-up.

But: The clock read all zeroes, and the Rutgers bench was already celebrating an electrifying upset of No. 1 Tennessee on their home floor. But: The celebration was short-lived—the officiating crew determined, after viewing the replay, that the foul occurred with 0.2 seconds left on the clock. Over the protestations of Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer, Anosike was sent to the foul line, where she sank both shots and propelled Tennessee to a wild 59-58 win—wilder still because of a wrinkle in time that, depending on your point of view, opened (or rather, held open) the door for the victory.

An AP account of the game put it this way: “Television replays showed the game clock seemed to pause as Anosike came down with the ball and two-tenths remained on the clock, leading to the controversial finish” (emphasis mine). ESPN aired a replay in which their own clock showed 1.3 seconds elapsing during the same span that 0.2 came off the scoreboard at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Perhaps instructive here is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which, according to Wikipedia, “describes how precisely we may measure the position and momentum of a particle at the same time—if we increase the precision in measuring one quantity, we are forced to lose precision in measuring the other.” As Rutgers coach Stringer said after the game, “[I]t seemed to me that they looked at it in slow motion, so they somehow missed it in real time.” In this case, the more precisely the officials were able to determine the exact instant at which Anosike was fouled, the less able they were to perceive how long that instant actually lasted.

In these high-pressure moments, we are reminded that the game is played within a set of accepted parameters—all of which are completely artificial to begin with. The otherwise unreal ability to stop and start time is achieved by an agreed-upon sleight of hand: A clock represents the “game time,” which runs independently of real time and can be advanced, paused, reversed and reset under the direction of those charged with officiating the game. In all matters, the game clock is the truth, and real time does not matter. Not really. After all, we could go back through all 40 minutes of this game with a comb as fine as the one that’s been run over its final moments and discover that a lot more than 1.3 seconds “should” have been added to or deleted from the clock as fouls were called, substitutions and baskets made, etc. But in the flow of the game, these temporal fragments add on and fall away, most likely with frequent enough “error” well outside the tolerance of two-tenths of a second.

The ensuing debate over the lagging clock resembled the Kurasawa film Rashomon, where multiple retellings of the same event each only compound the uncertainty. Tim Reese, the arena manager, told the website Go Vols Xtra, “The game clock can only be stopped by an official’s whistle.” Small microphones, attached to referees’ whistles, are wirelessly linked to transmitters on the referees’ belts, which in turn stop the game clock. Some hypothesized that an errant or anticipatory whistle caused the pause. Even with all that’s going on in the world, the AP tracked down the system’s inventor, Michael Costabile, who added fuel to the fire by saying that a timekeeper could also have stopped the clock. Perhaps someone, somewhere, inadvertently—or not—stopped and then quickly restarted the official time. We may never know.

After viewing the replay countless times under what I admit are less-than-HD conditions, it seems to me that, regardless of the clock stutter, the foul occurs before time would have run out. (Search for the terms “Rutgers” and “basketball,” plus your choice of “debacle,” “travesty” or “ripped off” on YouTube, and you can come to your own conclusions.) Of course, within the framework of the game, what matters is when the foul was whistled, not when it was committed. I have not seen a replay that shows the super-slow-mo footage with the corresponding audio track.

On this weekend’s Pat Summitt Show, the coach was asked for her take on what transpired. Doing her best to avoid saying either that her team didn’t deserve the win or that Vivian Stringer didn’t have a right to be pissed, Summitt unwittingly echoed the words of Brian McNamee—the former trainer to Roger Clemens who partook in the hearings on Capitol Hill earlier in the week, where he continued to claim he injected Clemens with performance-enhancing drugs. After reminding us of her close friendship with Stringer, Summitt shrugged her shoulders and said, with a touch of chagrin, “It is what it is.”

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