Entering the 2012 NFL regular season, the usual chatter, overanalysis, and optimism that accompanies the dawn of every new season was tempered only by the presence of the replacement referees, who have been replacing the currently locked out NFL Referees Association. These replacements, picked off lower level college and high school football fields, as well as street corners, alleys, etc., typically had a part in the headlines of the notoriously underwhelming preseason period. With the failure of the stand-in officials to assuage viewers’ fears of occasional incompetence, the microscope was in full focus as the season started two weeks ago.
The first weekend of the 2012 NFL regular season provided a false sense of security for a majority of football fans, analysts, and the league’s executive branch. While announcement blunders, delayed calls, and plain mistakes littered the opening weekend landscape, the replacements, to their credit, gave Roger Goodell and the league office a much-welcomed feeling of leverage and assurance in their ongoing battle with the NFL’s referee union. At a fraction of the cost, patchwork assortments of mercenary officials were providing serviceable, albeit slightly inferior, supervision for the games’ action. If the first week offered a reliable account of officiating quality for the rest of the season, then the league could well afford continuing its staring contest with the union.
Last weekend’s games, however, all but promised that the first week’s displays of control and fairly acceptable consistency would steer closer to exception than the rule. As exemplified in the Monday Night Football matchup between the Atlanta Falcons vs. Denver Broncos, officiating severely detracted from the game’s pace and quality. While we can only speculate on the communicative activity that actually takes place at field level, players in the game appeared to influence interference/illegal contact calls by calling on or gesturing to officials to throw a flag, which was directly followed by a late call on more than one occasion. Furthermore, constant penalty calls, delayed decision making, and a couple instances of neglect of league rules plagued the action throughout the night.
Clearly, the officials’ errors have not ultimately decided any game’s result, but have simply diminished the entertainment value of several contests. With that said, the dire effects of substitute referees are not laughable verbal errors, unnecessarily drawn out games, or questionable flash judgements, but rather the further compromise of player safety and loss of control, the latter which ultimately occurs when players and coach alike undermine the officiating crew’s authority.
The natural, and most popular, reaction to the referees’ logical lapses, by fans and analysts alike, has been a ‘holier-than-thou’ condemnation. While some…alright, many, calls have been blatant errors throughout the first two weeks, expectations for the second-tier crews to have no impact on game outcomes AND avoid controversy were always going to prove unreasonable. Fans, for the most part, know this. The league office, you would have to imagine, knows this as well. The substitute referees have given a valiant effort, but that’s all that could have been expected.
A solid single-A minor league pitcher could conceivably pitch a few respectable outings at a major league level, but expecting him to consistently deceive top-shelf hitters is foolish, at best. The main problem with this analogy, however, is that the ripple effects for substitute referees reach way beyond an individual and a team. Their performance will impact players, teams, but also, as others have rightly stated, the league’s integrity.
The overused mantra that “the NFL is a business” reminds us that the job of the league office in the negotiating process with the NFL Referees Association is to reach a deal that satisfies the league’s bottom line and demands concessions from the side on the opposite side of the table. At risk of gross oversimplifying the issue at hand and disregarding the league’s unmatched prosperity within the lucrative realm of American professional sports leagues, the officiating problem ultimately brings us back to the basic, well-traveled conflict of capitalism vs. ‘the right thing,’ recently encountered in the league’s proposal for an 18 game schedule.
If history provides a template, the option to swallow pride, blink first, and promptly send the union back to work will continue to hold little to no weight with league brass. As Steve Young aptly pointed out, America’s insatiable appetite for football will keep the seats filled and the televisions on. As long as this is the case, doing right by the players, teams, and fans will likely take a backseat, as money and principle comfortably sit driver and passenger. Make no mistake, in a perfect world, the referees’ union – the only people who can adequately perform that job over the course of a season – would have their demands met by the league and receive the welcome wagon next weekend. Unfortunately, the best we can hope for is a rare win for integrity over money.