Did Golden Tate catch the ball, or didn't he? Even after viewing the high-definition, slow-motion, Zapruder-esque replay about 500 times, I honestly don't know. Like many people -- including, apparently, the guys on the field wearing striped shirts who failed to notice that Tate committed offensive pass interference by shoving Sam Shields in the back -- I'm neither trained nor qualified to be a professional football referee.
What I do know is this: The NFL's ongoing
substitute teacher … James Belushi-for-John in "Blues Brothers 2000" … replacement official mess never had to come to this point.
Following Monday night's Green Bay-Seattle end-of-game meltdown, Sports Illustrated's Peter King tweeted that the play would go down as one of the "great disgraces in NFL history." Not so. The league's ongoing fight against brain-damaged ex-players is a disgrace. Sloppy, bumbling officiating that leads the "Today Show" is a debacle. There's a difference. (Speaking of which, have you seen "Today's" ratings lately?) And the amazing thing about it, beyond Seahawks coach Pete Carroll actually winning forever, is that the damage to the NFL's image has been both self-inflicted and avoidable, the league's answer to George Lucas inexplicably deciding that Han Solo didn't shoot first.
(Editor's note: He totally, totally did.)
After all, the NFL's dispute with its regular referees reportedly boils down to money. An exceedingly small amount of money -- $16.5 million, to be exact, which is basically what the officials are asking for via pay raises and a continuation of their current pension plan, a minor duke's ransom the league adamantly refuses to fork over. Read that again: $16.5 million. That's less than half of Drew Brees' $37 million signing bonus. Less than the reported $20 million NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will soon make annually. Way less than the estimated $40 million Jerry Jones dropped on the Ozymandias-shaming HD Jumbotron at Cowboys Stadium. Nothing pro football, a $9.3 billion-a-year industry, can't write off as a rounding error. Or better yet, a tax break. (Trust me: The NFL's lawyers have figured out a way to make the league qualify as a non-profit organization. You don't think they can turn $16.5 million of referee pension payments into a deductible expense?)
In short, the league could have made this entire fiasco go away by giving up the equivalent of a found $20 bill in the laundry. Instead, the NFL has thus far dug in. No retreat. No surrender. Coaches are furious, fans are incredulous, players are near-mutinous. Pro football's true lifeblood -- gambling -- has been affected. Also, Matt Lauer is making fun of you. And still the league seems willfully oblivious. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Ronald Reagan once cut a deal with Iran's mullahs. Iran's mullahs cut a deal with the Great Satan. The NFL can't do the same with its own game officials. What gives?
I have a theory.
All negotiations -- all business relationships, really -- ultimately come down to leverage. And leverage, in turn, comes down to who can more easily walk away from a prospective deal. The side that wants and needs the other side less is usually the side that eventually gets what it wants. (Also see: every dysfunctional, why-doesn't-he/she-call-me? dating relationship ever.)
Now, for as long as I can remember, the NFL has enjoyed leverage. With just about everyone. With the networks falling over each other bidding up television rights fees. With the fans who complain about lockouts and blackouts and basically getting their wallets fracked for every last dollar -- Exhibit F-23: Washington owner Dan Snyder once charged admission to training camp -- but still shell out for PSLs. With the players who need game checks more than the billionaire owners who sign said checks need ticket and television revenue. (If the league misses a season due to a lockout, Paul Allen is not going hungry. That same might not be true of his Seahawks. Where else are they going to get paid? The UFL?) With the cities and municipalities that have forked over more than $4 billion in direct public stadium financing and tax subsidies over the last 25 years, an orgy of corporate welfare that puts pro football squarely in the 47 percent camp of Mitt Romney's makers-versus-takers worldview.
Why did EA Sports pay the NFL a reported $300 million for exclusive video game rights? Because otherwise, "Madden NFL" is just "Madden," a football game no one wants to buy, like "Mike Ditka Power Football."
Enter the league's regular officials. They are -- much to the NFL's unspoken chagrin -- part-time employees. They have outside jobs. They have outside lives. Most important, they have outside sources of income. They can take pro football, which admittedly pays them a pretty penny, an average salary of $150,000. But they also can leave it. Walk away. They can sit across a table from the league's negotiators and say the most powerful word in the English language, the same word that gave the Republican party a revived raison d'etre following its 2008 shellacking at the polls, the same word two-year-olds spend an inordinate time attempting to master.
Does the NFL realize this? Really and truly? Does the league understand that it isn't in a position to dictate to its striped-shirt workforce? Or is it so accustomed to calling the shots -- to forever holding the trump card of our insatiable collective appetite for pro football -- that it has forgotten how the world usually works, how the rest of us mostly live?
I'm afraid it's the latter.
Look, President Obama is probably the most powerful person on the planet. (Speaking of footballs, the nuclear suitcase is a pretty good trump card.) Nevertheless, he has to compromise. Regularly. More to the point, he often loses. For that matter, so does Carroll, no matter what his book says. You can't always get what you want. The NFL comes closer than most. And that, I think, is the heart of the problem. People say that Monday night's officiating farce will be the last straw -- that in its sheer, pro-football-as-presented-by-Monty-Python ridiculousness, it will force the league to capitulate. Me? I'm less optimistic.
Crummy officiating or not, fans are still watching. Players are still playing. Sponsors are still paying. I'm still writing about it. The regular refs can walk away; everyone else, not so much.
On second thought, maybe I'm misjudging the situation. Maybe the NFL has all the leverage it needs.