Well, it's clear now: The Gods hate the replacement refs. That probably was obvious enough before Monday night's catastrophe, before the Green Bay-Seattle finish that turned the NFL into a laughingstock once and for all. The Greek Gods had already sent down Herculean labors for the replacement referees -- fumbles that did not look like fumbles, pass interference temptations, screaming players and coaches -- and these replacement referees essentially failed every test.
But Monday night's ending, well, if that doesn't end this farce, then it's clear that the people who run the NFL have simply decided that they don't owe the fans, the players or anyone else legitimacy.
First, a quick recap of the play: Seattle trailed Green Bay by five with time for one last play. The Seahawks had the ball on the Green Bay 24. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back, spun around, ran left and then threw a sort of mini-Hail Mary toward the left corner of the end zone.
Here's what followed, at least to the naked eye (and the many replay cameras):
One: Seattle receiver Golden Tate literally shoved down a Green Bay defensive back in one of the most blatant offensive pass interference penalties the world has ever seen. The replacement officials, who have and will call pass interference on ordinary lamp posts, somehow missed this.
Two: Green Bay defensive back M.D. Jennings jumped up with Tate and pulled the ball into his chest. There were numerous replays from numerous angles, but no perfect one. Still every bit of evidence suggested that Jennings caught the ball, pulled it to his chest and fell on top of Tate. Interception. Game over.
Three: Tate, meanwhile, was grabbing for the ball too. Again, the replays were not ideal, but it certainly seemed like Tate had just one hand on the ball and then was reaching his second hand in there. The rule is that if there is simultaneous possession, it goes to the offensive receiver. Nothing in the original viewing or the replays suggested, though, that this was simultaneous possession. Everything in the replays suggested that after Jennings landed with the ball, Tate wriggled his arms while they were on the ground in a bold effort to fool someone clueless enough to fall for it.
Four: Enter replacement officials!
Five: Two replacement officials ran over to look at the play. And at the same time, with comedic flair, one official waived his arms over his head, which appeared to signal "interception," while the other held his arms above his head, which appeared to signal "touchdown."
Five: Planets exploded, Jor-El sent his only son to Earth, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was way too happy, NFL owners counted and pocketed another week of referee discounts, and Seattle somehow won the game.
You know, it's hard to remember a time when the NFL wasn't the biggest thing going in American sports. But there was such a time. There was a time in the not-so-ancient past when pro football was way behind baseball … and also behind boxing and horse racing and college football and perhaps track and field.
How did pro football take over America? There are great books on the subject, but I think you could probably reduce it to this: Pro football has managed in a perhaps unprecedented way to balance itself right on the American edge. And it has stayed there for 40 years.
I mean, it's RIGHT THERE on the brink. Look: The NFL is extraordinarily violent … but not so unchecked that people turn away in disgust.
Look: The NFL is extraordinarily random -- everyone concedes that penalties could be called on every play, footballs are spotted by sight and measured by chains, teams have so many players injured that they rarely can field the same team twice -- but not so random that it becomes too erratic to enjoy.
Look: The NFL is driven by gambling and vice -- point spreads, parlays, fantasy games, alcohol ads, erectile dysfunction ads, unspoken steroid use -- but not so much that we find it corrupt.
Look: The NFL is big-time television, constantly interrupted by commercials and stoppages and huddles and warnings, only a few minutes of action for every hour of broadcasting … but we still find it absolutely mesmerizing television. Last year, Sunday Night Football was the No. 1 show on television. Not in sports. All of television.
The NFL owners, curators, players … they've made a lot of harmful mistakes and done a lot of pea-brained things. The replacement player fiasco. The insistence that season ticket holders buy meaningless and stupid exhibition games at full price. The league's public fight with its former players who are living in great pain (or dying young) from what they say is the savagery of pro football. The way the league has handled -- or not handled -- the incredible dangers of concussions. Through it all, though, you would have to say that the NFL never lost middle America, never fell over the cliff. No, pro football managed to stay right on the edge -- dangerous but not perilous, chaotic but not out of control, hyped but not outrageous.
And then … these guys allowed this replacement referee fiasco to happen.
Before Monday night, you could say that these officials were slowly but surely destroying the rhythms, integrity and enjoyment of pro football. Slowly, at least. They made their dumb calls, yes -- 11-yard penalties, bizarre decisions on fumbles, pass interference calls for everybody!
They failed to take charge of games, yes. This is not entirely their fault, maybe not even mostly their fault. They are simply too inexperienced, too raw and too confused to hold the attention and respect of men who are playing and coaching a dangerous game under the most intense scrutiny in American sports. These coaches and players -- like the league itself -- are just on the edge, and having substitute teachers calling the games just isn't going to keep them calm.
And they made the games all but unwatchable. Reviews. Meetings. Conferences. More reviews. More meetings. Football has always walked that tightrope anyway … the game has so many interruptions already. Who doesn't kick the wall just a little bit when there's a commercial, then a kickoff, then ANOTHER commercial? But now these replacement referees, just desperately trying to keep their heads above water, have slowed the game down to 12th-grade chemistry class. You half expect one of them to start saying "Bueller? Bueller?" before finally telling us what the call is.
These things, I believe, and others have made the replacement referees a real danger to the NFL's balance. The NFL was on the edge in so many ways … the replacement referees pushed them over. For most of America, the game was ALMOST too dangerous before; the replacements make it more dangerous. The game was ALMOST too slow and plodding before; the replacement refs make it slower. The game was ALMOST too convoluted before; the replacement refs make it more convoluted. The NFL owners and executives were ALMOST too greedy and self-serving and dismissive of the fans before; the replacement refs make it all the more true.
This WAS the problem. But now, after Monday night, the NFL has a whole new problem. Because this was not subtle. This was in-your-face fraud. On Monday night -- in a perfect visual that had to be sent down from the Gods -- one of the league's most popular teams got jobbed by the sheer incompetence of the replacement refs. And this happened at the end of a generally disastrous night when those refs called 8,394 penalties (I don't have the box score in front of me, but that's how many I counted) and turned a tense football game into four-hour torture chamber.
I honestly cannot see how the NFL can let this stand. Then again, I have not been able to understand how the NFL has allowed this sporting travesty to go on for three weeks. When that last pass landed in Jennings' arms, when Tate tried to take it away, when one referee signaled interception and another signaled touchdown, I looked up to Olympus and thanked whichever of the Greek Gods set that up. It was said that Zeus turned Pandareus to stone for stealing the golden dog that had once guarded Zeus. Sure, it would have been good to see Roger Goodell turned to stone. But this was good, too.