Our long national nightmare appears to be over. A billion-dollar corporation will stop saving money and start saving face, and as a result, the replacement refs are about to lose their jobs. The unemployment rate in this country is about to inch up, and people will react by taking to the streets to celebrate madly.
This isn’t really about the schoolteachers and plumbers and mailmen who worked on Sundays for a little extra dough and a lot of unwanted grief, though. This is about the NFL and the power of a league that survived 48 radioactive hours. With negotiations nearly settled, did the regular referees bring a mighty league to its knees? Or did Roger Goodell and the owners finally see what we all saw, that the league had turned into a joke?
Maybe a little of both, and if all goes well, by this weekend it’ll all be forgotten. The real refs will eventually return, the rules will be properly enforced, Bill Belichick will keep his hands to himself (can you imagine Hoody grabbing Ed Hochuli’s guns?) and the only evidence of a comical weekend will be Golden Tate of the Seahawks still insisting he caught that touchballdownintercompletion.
The shield has not been tarnished, though, because that suggests it’ll never be restored. Do you really believe that? The NFL may be the only entity in this country that can survive anything. Cockroaches everywhere are jealous. The federal government will collapse first. Apple will go bankrupt first. Snicker and ridicule the scab refs all you want -- and you should. They’re pure slapstick. But remember the league used scab players lifted from construction sites and post offices in 1987 and lived to tell. The NFL canceled almost half a season in 1982 and by kickoff at the Super Bowl everyone had developed short-term memory loss.
There were folks in Green Bay who swore off football until either the regular refs returned or the Packers got that game overturned. Meanwhile, they slipped on cheesehead loafers, strapped on $350 Aaron Rodgers jersey and reached in the fridge for the beer that stuffs millions into the owner’s pocket. You see? You can try and kick the league in the groin, except your poor foot will quickly discover what’s made of brass.
While the NFL indeed hammered the real refs by being petty, the opposite was also true. Normally, in the case of a strike or lockout, the NFL would use major college referees to fill in. That happened before, in 2001. The difference in the quality of officiating wouldn’t be so drastic. But NFL refs serve as supervisors to those refs, who were told to stay away. Other college refs, in a show of solidarity (and maybe hoping to become NFL refs someday), also rejected the NFL.
That left referees from junior college, high school and the Arena League, and very few had ever dealt with a game that moves this quickly with players this big. The real refs essentially put the squeeze on the NFL (and by extension, the players and coaches, too). Had college refs been used, games would not have lasted four hours, the bumbling would’ve been minimized and the real refs would’ve lost most if not all leverage.
The real refs were also helped by those who usually make their lives miserable: players and coaches. This solidarity was shown whenever a player flipped off a replacement, which was often. That was alarming to Goodell and the owners, who didn’t anticipate it. Players who whined about safety were their own worst enemy. Without an experienced set of eyes watching and policing them, they tried to get away with anything and everything: holds, illegal blocks, punches and whatnot. Imagine basketball players calling their own fouls. Fights broke out and scrums began to mushroom. The game was out of control. The NFL was embarrassed by the last few days, as it should have been, but players were so intimidating that the replacements shivered every time they reached for their whistle.
And coaches turned into bullies, going ballistic and, as we saw with Belichick, even getting physical. The scab refs were pounded, guilty of poorly doing a job they weren’t prepared to do.
Was it worth the money? Was it worth getting lampooned on TV round the clock? Was it worth seeing your family name spoofed? What they didn’t have was any chance of working in the NFL ever again. And so, besides the money, what was there to be gained? Some were bound to walk out, and then who would replace the replacements?
The NFL makes billions, and will continue to do so because we’re all gullible. This game, with its violence and beauty and arrogance, is just too irresistible. The NFL is part of the family, and no matter how much it misbehaves, there’s always a seat waiting at the dinner table. In time, this too shall pass.
The regular refs will return along with sanity, and when they blow a call, and you know they will, people will blow a fuse. Like old times. Late in the season, somebody will complain how the scabs cost a team a possible playoff spot or home-field edge. But that’s a long time from now. Anything can and will happen in the NFL, that’s the norm, even in a season without referee strife. A number of stirring games or performances will make you forget the first four weekends real quick. Most likely, the team that wins the Super Bowl will do so because they were good enough and got hot at the right time. Not because a scab ref’s call went their way two months earlier.
All that we know for sure is Goodell will get booed when he hands over the trophy.
Well, actually, a few more guarantees: The league will keep printing money and survive nicely. You will still watch games. That ridiculous win by the Seahawks will still stand. And Packer fans will still fill Lambeau Field and their sofas on Sunday. This is football season and the NFL, and that will never change.