On Nov. 26, 1988, captains for the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers met at midfield with referee Phil Luckett to determine which team would get first possession in overtime of the nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game. The Steelers’ Jerome Bettis haltingly said “Hea-,” then blurted out “Tails.” The coin came up tails. Luckett immediately — and correctly by NFL rules — told Bettis the first call counted and gave Detroit the choice. The Lions took the ball, kicked a field goal and won the game. Luckett became fodder for criticism and parody.
Referee, it seemed, was the only media source or organization willing to support Luckett’s correct action. Evidence in support of Luckett included a Pittsburgh radio station’s enhanced audio of the telecast which confirmed Luckett’s account. Yet the NFL ignored calls from the NFL Referees Association to support Luckett, although a weekly training tape made by the officiating department obtained by Referee included the situation along with the commentary, “What Phil did is correct.”
The controversy had yet to diminish when an anonymous package arrived at the Referee offices. The envelope contained documents, memos and letters providing behind-the-scenes information available to no other media source. Among the nuggets: The NFL paid Luckett $9,800 for a playoff game he didn’t officiate.
The result was a story that risked Referee’s relationship with the NFL officiating department in general and the late Jerry Seeman, the director of officials, in particular. But the editors determined principle was foremost and the story was published.