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RULES TO BE IGNORED

TIMES STAFF WRITER TOM JONES OFFERS UP HIS TWO CENTS ON THE WORLD OF SPORTS

Serena Williams'temper tantrum at the U.S. Open was not excusable, but it was somewhat understandable. While no call can justify the expletive-laden threats she made to the line judge, she did have the right to be a little annoyed. Just two points from losing a semifinal match - but just a few points from being even in the match - Williams was called for a foot fault, which gave her double fault and cost her a point. Did Williams technically break the rules? Yes, although we have yet to see a replay that proves her foot was on the service line. Did she gain an advantage from it? No. In other words, it's a call that is rarely made and probably shouldn't be made at that point in the match. Here are some other rules, violations and penalties in sports that are generally ignored late in games for the sake of letting the players decide the outcome.

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Hockey

No sport turns a blind eye to the rules late in a game more than hockey. In fact, they even have a term for it in hockey, saying referees "have put the whistle in their pocket.'' A penalty in the first period often isn't a penalty in the third period, especially if it's a tight game. Overtime penalties usually require some blood on the ice. And overtime in the playoffs? An actual law needs to be broken.

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Three seconds in basketball

Fans complain that traveling is never called in the NBA, but that is more urban legend than reality. There isn't nearly as much traveling as NBA haters like to claim. But three seconds? That's a call that has gone the way of the old set shot. You rarely see it. And it's never going to be called in the final two minutes of any game.

Holding and interferenceon Hail Mary plays in football

Last play of the game, and a team is down to its last desperation hope by sending four receivers into the end zone and having the quarterback simply throw a 50-yard jump ball into the air. While players are practically mugging each other in the end zone, officials might as well use their penalty flags to wipe the sweat from their brow because there is no way they are going to call interference. In fact, can you ever remember seeing interference called on a Hail Mary? Same with holding.

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Check swings

If it's the top of the first in June and there's no score and a baseball player checks his swing, there's a reasonable chance he will be charged with a strike on an appeal. But let's change the scenario. Late September, bottom of the eighth, two outs, a count of a ball and two strikes, bases loaded in a tie game. There's no way in the world an umpire is going to ring up a hitter on a close checked swing.

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Catcher's balk

There's a little-known rule in baseball that if a catcher steps out of the catcher's box before the pitcher throws the ball, it's a balk. The only time it happens is during an intentional walk or pitchout, but it is never, ever called. Wait, there was one famous case. During the final of the 1990 Little League Southern Region championship in Gulfport, Dunedin lost a chance to go the Little League World Series when its catcher was called for a balk, which resulted in the winning run being awarded home in the bottom of the last inning. Dunedin's manager took the blame and said the umpire made the right call, but we still think that ump was a knucklehead for making that call at that time.

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Phantom double play

Maybe once a month you see an umpire call a runner safe at second because the fielder didn't have his foot on the base during the front half of a double play. But you would never, ever see that call at a big moment in a big game.

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Number of the day, part I

21 millionThe two-game average audience for the opening two NFL games on NBC - Thursday night's Steelers-Titans game and Sunday night's Packers-Bears game. That's a 32 percent increase from last season.

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Number of the day, part II

10.6 millionViewers for Saturday's telecast of Southern Cal and Ohio State on ESPN, making it the most-viewed college football game ever on ESPN. The game was the most-viewed telecast of the night, beating out an episode of Nickelodeon's iCarly, which had 7.6 million viewers.

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Comments of the day

Judging by reaction from the around the country, Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, better known as Mike and Mike of the ESPN radio show, should stick to their radio show instead of calling games on TV. The two, along with Steve Young, called the second game of the Monday Night Football doubleheader on ESPN.

San Jose Mercury-News columnist Ann Killion wrote on Twitter: "God these announcers are horrendous. Can this really still call itself MNF??"

Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports wrote, "I've listened to Mike & Mike for five minutes and I already want to turn the game off. Why does ESPN think this is a good booth combo?''

On and on it went throughout the night, especially when the three bungled a rules situation when they contended Raiders receiver Louis Murphy should've been awarded a touchdown when officials ruled it an incomplete pass - which turned out to be the right call.

The question is this: why does ESPN insist on using Mike and Mike for the second game of these Monday night doubleheaders? The network has a slew of solid announcing teams doing college football - Sean McDonough and Matt Millen quickly come to mind - so why not put one of them on?

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Three things that popped into my head

1 The Lightning playing six preseason games in seven nights over 6,803 miles in all four time zones seems like the absolute perfect recipe for getting off to another slow start to the regular season.

2 Did you ever think you would see the day when the Gators would be 28 1/2-point favorites against Tennessee?

3 The Rays' No. 1 offseason move should be manager Joe Maddon allowing his hair to grow back to its natural gray and then promising to never dye it again.

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