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All's Fair in Love - and College Football?

The essence of sport is fairness. Without it, winning is transient and transparent. Winning without fairness has all the substance of cotton candy and all the permanence of a sunset.

At its core, to win but not fairly is the stuff of emptiness.

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When facts or photos or tapes prove that a win is ill-gotten, even the beneficiaries are deprived of the joy of victory, which is the maraschino cherry atop the dessert of competition. The losers are left to shout and wave their arms and grind their teeth.

This is why, every year, the Colorado-Missouri football game causes many to revisit the most famous ill-secured victory in college history. It has now been eight fall seasons since Colorado won (sort of) 33-31 on a fifth-down play as the game ended. Sharpies will note the max is four downs. That's the problem.

When the two played again last weekend, Missouri drubbed the hapless Buffs 38-14. There were those Colorado followers who whined when the Tigers poured it on. Possibly. Doesn't matter. Missouri, forevermore, will be seeking redemption and vindication.

Worse, for those who still believe in the old-fashioned notion of fair play, is that Colorado went on to become national champs for 1990 in the eyes of voters in the Associated Press poll, despite an early season loss to Illinois and a tie with Tennessee. A second loss to Missouri clearly would have precluded being No. 1.

It all happened because officials forgot to change a sideline marker that indicates which of the four downs is coming up. This led to two second downs being played. The scoreboard operator, taking his cue from the officials on the field, followed the sideline indication.

Incredibly, nobody noticed until after Buffs quarterback Charles Johnson was ruled to have scored on a one-yard run on fifth down. Not Colorado, which would not have been of a mind anyway to point out the error in counting to four. Not Missouri, which certainly would have been of a mind to go nuts in protest if it had realized.

Everyone immediately took sides. The hard truth, largely overlooked, is the outcome wasn't fair to either team. Nor was it fair to college football, which ended with a national champ with dubious, even failed, credentials. Above all, it wasn't fair to sport, which requires fairness to be valid.

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Both universities handled the brouhaha poorly.

Missouri is still grumbling and acting ugly. Truth is, the Tigers weren't paying attention to details or they would have known a fifth down was coming up. Truth is, Colorado wasn't paying attention either. Then-coach Bill McCartney said lamely, "We played within the guidelines that the referees laid down."

One wishes that Colorado would have risen to the moral mountaintop and at least offered to forfeit. "Absurd," groused McCartney of the suggestion. Wrong. It would have done wonders for the ethically challenged college game and forevermore established the University of Colorado as a school where principle matters more than winning. Quaint thought.

In fairness, there is no provision for forfeiting under these conditions in college football. But like inviting someone to dinner who can't come, you get credit for making the offer. Colorado didn't deliberately cheat. Yet, it paid the price even more than Missouri because the perception was that the Buffs did triumph unfairly, making the win bogus. Voters in the UPI poll punished Colorado by voting Georgia Tech national champs. Thus, Colorado can only claim to be a tainted co-champ.

Here's what would have been ideal:

Missouri and Colorado should have joined hands and announced that, through no fault of either team, it was not a fairly determined outcome. Then, they should have said that the game would be replayed from the start as the final game of the season in early December. If it meant fouling up the bowl invitations, so be it. The choice between honor and bowls is an easy one. Best of all, both institutions would have been praised coast-to-coast for doing the right thing.

The populace would have been positively stunned.

TV would have generated millions of dollars and starry ratings broadcasting the We Believe In Fairness rematch. What a marvelous G-rated show in a too-often X-rated world. What a glorious legacy.

Instead, the controversial game leaves us with grumpiness and frowns. In the heat of battle, men and women who are leaders of universities, not to mention those who play the game, should insist that right be done.

Why don't they?

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is

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