The NFL’s replacement refs have become a bigger story than the game itself lately, with repeated blown calls and ensuing chaos drawing the ire of fans, players and coaches alike. Are the refs jeopardizing the validity of the season and the NFL as a whole? Is the league’s collective-bargaining squabble with the real refs worth all this? Sports on Earth’s writers offer their thoughts.
The thing that people miss about football is that it is really all but impossible to officiate. As football fans instinctively know, on just about every NFL play there is holding (or not), there is illegal contact or an illegal block (or not), there is unnecessary roughness (or necessary). The game moves too quickly, the actions are too violent, the attempts to hide illegal moves or exaggerate legal ones are continuous. Even the most obvious penalties can be missed by the most qualified person. I found it striking, for instance, on Monday night -- when the replacement referees basically lost control of the Denver-Atlanta game -- that the most stunning bit of incompetence came from Broncos coach John Fox, who challenged the ruling that his team had 12 men on the field even though his team definitively had 12 men on the field. And that’s just first-grade math.
What referees do is offer legitimacy to the game. They overcome the impossibilities of their jobs -- isn’t it wonderful how they estimate where the ball might have stopped, put it there, and then measure it to the millimeter? -- by trying to call the games with some consistency, by allowing them to have pace and flow, by trying to keep things equitable, by giving the illusion that they have some measure of control of the free-for-all. The best referees do all this, and it’s like a magic trick.
We are now seeing what happens when replacement referees are out there. They are not as good as the real referees, of course. But the problem is much bigger than that. They do not command the respect and command of the real guys. When the real referees blow a call, it’s just the nature of the beast, and you hope that either the mistake will get overturned or that it will even out somewhere down the line. When these referees blow a call, the entire validity of the game goes right out the window.
For the NFL to care so little about validity that they would lock out the referees over an amount of money that, to the billionaire owners, is peanuts, tells the oldest story in the world -- the story of greed.
The longer this goes on, the worse it will look for the NFL. Roger Goodell and company have to see that pretty clearly now. But just because they see it doesn’t mean they will fix it. You can’t ever underestimate the greed factor.
In high school, there was no better time than when you had a substitute teacher. The old rules no longer applied; you could chat with your friends, play paper football in the back of the room, maybe just ditch the class and go to Shoney’s. Once in a while you’d get a sub who tried to whip the class into shape, but why listen? She’d be gone tomorrow.
The National Football League, one of the most successful businesses in America, is trying to play a season with substitute refs. And the teams are predictably taking every advantage of that. Players are shoving after the whistle. Coaches are steaming over every call. Every mistake by the referees is magnified. And on Monday night, in primetime, they made lots of mistakes. Broncos coach John Fox seemed to be weighing dark options: What kind of fine would I get for strangling a line judge?
In a school, you can get away with having a few subs -- talented and experienced teachers are there to pick up the slack. But a school full of replacement teachers would turn into “Lord of the Flies” after about three days.
In the NFL, give it three weeks. If the real refs aren’t back for this week’s games, look for every game to get more confusing, angrier -- and more dangerous.
Steve Young's comments on Monday night may have pushed the NFL a little closer to reconciliation. He spoke to a national audience, albeit past bedtime for many Easterners. He used very strong language about the league's stance, especially the "let them eat cake'' reference about the NFL's attitude toward fans complaining about the quality of play.
Steve is not known as anti-ownership or anti-business. I'm not sure where he stands politically now, but in his playing days, when he would discuss the possibility of running for office someday, it was understood that there would be an (R) next to his name on any ballot. Yet twice in his comments Monday night, he said disapprovingly that the league was prioritizing breaking a union over safety and the quality of its product.
If older current players started speaking as a group, it would add to the pressure. There was more grumbling after the Week 2 games, but players still have to get past the concern that they'll sound like crybabies before they'll rally around the cause.
For the season to be considered competitively tainted on a broad scale, the mistakes would have to increase over time. Young was right when he said the appetite for NFL games is so great that the league can get away with almost anything. If the ersatz refs end up working the playoffs and screw up in big way, that might be remembered forever.
When the post-game conversation is about who blew the call rather than who blew the blocking assignment, when the crew chief is calling more huddles than the quarterback, and when the outcomes of games are influenced by a guy who teaches woodshop in his day job, then the NFL has a bit of a problem, don’t you think?
We tend to forget how many times the real refs screwed up, but that's the point. The replacements, at least based on appearance and perception, are much worse in their judgment and execution. And here's where the slope gets really slippery: The players don't have any respect for the fake refs, so they're trying to get away with stuff that they wouldn't dare pull on the full-timers. Then the game gets out of control, as we saw in Redskins-Rams and Broncos-Falcons.
Sure, the NFL is under no pressure to settle, because fans will keep watching and paying, even for this. But the longer this goes, the better the chance that a slew of games will be completed under protest. It's time the NFL cut the check and move on. You wonder how much of this lockout, at this point, is due to being stubborn and saving ego. It's certainly not about saving a buck to stay within budget: The recession-proof NFL has more than enough money to pay the real guys.
Unless, of course, they're saving up for that hefty settlement for head injuries.
In one sense, the replacement referees take a vivid young season and ladle further entertainment upon it. Did you catch the loony interference call in Pittsburgh? Did you see Michael Vick's so-called fumble in Philadelphia? Did you get a load of Steven Jackson scoring but getting no points in St. Louis? The five-yard penalty marked off 11 yards in Atlanta? The bean bag instead of the flag in Philadelphia?
The remarkable joke of the Facebook Saints fan assigned to the Saints game in Charlotte?
It could become a small industry across the autumn, tallying up the gaffes and stoking further controversy for a bored nation. Maybe somebody could become the Greta Van Susteren of the replacement-referee mini-era, catapulting from this into the brighter lights. Maybe Brian Stropolo could get a book deal: "The Day I Almost Met My Heroes On The Gridiron.”
In another sense, though, Roger Goodell's plight conjures so many times across history when male leaders couldn't own up to their errors and move on. Whether it delegitimizes the results any more than drug use or bounty hunting or secret videotaping already has in other seasons, well, probably not. Yet inasmuch as this has dented the NFL's long-burnished aura of competence, it already did not work. Look, we all mess up. It takes some brass to confess it. Owning up to it, paying some experienced referees and moving on, well, it might not get much credit as a show of strength, but in a rational culture it would.
The replacement officials lack the experience, training and self-confidence to anticipate when fights will occur on the field or to break up fights after they happen. We need to worry a little less about players getting injured due to officiating incompetence and worry more about the officials themselves getting hurt.
I don't want some barely compensated, unpadded, unprepared guy to suffer a serious injury that affects his life and his real career, all because he lived the dream of being a referee for a few weeks and got shoved around in a fight that would not have happened in the first place if the regular referees were there to maintain order. The replacement officials need to walk away from the game while all of them can still walk.
Can you imagine this NFL season without instant replay? No matter how atrocious the replacement officiating is, at least many of the calls are eventually correct -- even if it takes 10 minutes of chaos and confusion to get them right.
Instant replay should never be used as this much of a crutch, of course, and it doesn’t make up for countless bad calls on penalties. However, the results now are no less valid than 1998, for example. Replay, as annoying as it is, at least makes the games salvageable. But two weeks of “salvageable” is long enough.
Obviously, Roger Goodell and the owners need to get over themselves and get a deal done. Scab refs are losing control of players, their constant use of replay provides endless disruptions to the flow of the game, and some of them are apparently more concerned with their fantasy teams than knowing the definition of a defenseless receiver.
This is unacceptable for all involved.
Anyone who watched Monday night’s game, or the Eagles-Ravens game, or, well, any game, knows how much of a disaster it’s been. Yes, we’ll all return to bashing the real refs five minutes into their first appearance back, but we can at least be confident that they generally know what they’re doing. They wouldn’t be at the top of their profession if they didn’t.
I’m about ready to stop using the NFL-approved term “replacement refs” and start calling this group something more honest: scabs. A lot of people don’t like to use that word, and I understand. It’s an ugly word, and many of us are reluctant to drag unpleasant, divisive, politically tinged labor disputes into the football discourse. But the NFL has already done that. The owners brought that right into the game when they locked out the qualified, trained refs and shoved inadequate substitutes into their fans’ faces.
Calling these new refs scabs doesn’t mean that they’re bad people. I’m sure they all have reasons for what they’re doing and why they’re undercutting the real referees’ negotiations, possibly good reasons, and I’m sure they’re trying their hardest to get these calls right. They’re failing, though.
As for the validity of the games called by these referees, as baseball fans found out the hard way during the steroid mess, there’s no way to rewrite history. You can throw a whole snowstorm of asterisks at the season, but there’s no undoing wins and losses and statistics and records, no matter how corrupt the circumstances. These games are on the record and they can’t be disregarded or altered. But hopefully, they can be learned from.