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Replacement refs: enough is enough, Mr. Commissioner

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Say What?
Photo: Ray Stubblebine, Reuters

Much has been said about the NFL’s replacement referees and their sub-par, at best, performance to date. There is plenty of blame and criticism going around, and while it is difficult to say that any party is totally justified in its handling of the referee lockout situation, and that includes the media, the players and the coaches, the only party that is clearly incorrect is the NFL, itself.

The negative commentary from sportswriters and commentators is not totally incorrect, as there have been quite a few missed calls and poorly administered games, much of it is missing the point that this should not be a surprise to anyone. The replacements are Division II and III college referees and some have even refereed the former Lingerie Bowls, which is about as dignified as refereeing a Bud Bowl. Anyone who expected them to come in and perform well with limited training and zero NFL experience was either unreasonably optimistic or did not understand how difficult it is to referee an NFL game.

Some criticisms have been made that even the NFL’s commentators know the rules better than the referees. Well, shouldn’t they? They cover games every week and have years of experience doing so. Put another way, you would not expect to bring Brent Musberger in to cover an NFL game with limited research or training and have him know all of the players, coaches and specific rules of the NFL. That said, Musberger doesn’t know what is going on during college games most of the time so perhaps that is a poor example.

Regardless, several networks also have former NFL referees on staff—you would expect that Mike Pereira and Gerry Austin are more than happy to immediately whisper in the commentators’ ear pieces when the replacement referees make a mistake. Still, I think the replacement referees, in general and as a whole, have performed about as well as they should have been expected to and maybe even outperformed expectations. It is easy to point out a couple crews who have had particularly bad games or blatantly missed some calls, but I just do not think that is representative of the quality, or lack thereof, of the refereeing as a whole.

Some have said that the replacement referees deserve all of the criticism they get. That is true to some extent—if you are the referee of any sport, at virtually any level, you need to expect that you are going to be criticized when you make a poor call. If you don’t like it, it’s very simple—just don’t be a referee. However, they don’t deserve criticism just because they are “scabs,” a term applied to substitute employees during any labor dispute who are undermining the striking employees’ cause. These replacement referees would never benefit from the striking NFL referees cause. One could argue for a “trickle down effect” of better compensated NFL referees helping college referees as well, even down to the NFL level.

There is some validity to that, albeit in the very long term, but are these replacement referees ever going to benefit from that? Certainly not as much as they benefit from getting paid to referee NFL games. While I am not a proponent of crossing picket lines for minimal short term gains, it is at the very least easy to understand how these replacement referees could justify to themselves that it is worth doing so. One could even say that the replacements’ sub-par performance, at least compared to the usual referees, is doing the usual referees a favor, in terms of their negotiating position with the NFL. The replacement referees have clearly demonstrated that NFL refereeing is not a commodity product, despite the NFL’s feeble attempts to claim that it is.

Many have pointed out the NFL’s hypocrisy in claiming to care about player safety (only about 30 years late on that one, guys, and that’s being generous) one on hand and then relying on replacement referees to regulate and maintain the safety of the players on the field with the other. However, they are hardly the only hypocrites here. The players have every right to criticize some of the poor calls, and I think should be allowed to do so, at least for the replacement referees (there has to at least be some conflict of interest with the NFL fining players for criticizing the referees who are replacing the usual referees who are involved in a labor dispute), but it is irritating hearing players complain about the player safety issue.

If players truly cared about this, they wouldn’t have set bounties for trying to injure each other, or intentionally try take each others’ heads off, or cheap shot a QB’s knees after the play. And that’s what they do with the usual referees! Now many players are trying to take advantage of substitute referees with even more blatant cheap shots, late hits and scuffles. This is hardly anecdotal evidence as it has been commonplace in just about every game I’ve watched so far this season.

I have actually been particularly irritated by the commentary from the media and commentators on the performance of the replacement referees. I have grown accustomed to their self-importance, so it is unsurprising that they have taken the lead role in trying to push the NFL to settle and make concessions with its usual referees (this again seems to be a conflict of interest, as they benefit from a better product on the field). However, if they really cared about fans’ views or the quality of refereeing on the field, why do they rarely, if ever, make critical comments about the usual referees? I just hope that they are equally critical when the usual referees return, but I expect for them to instead gush about how great it is to have them back. Yes, it will be good to have them back, but that does not make the usual referees exempt from criticism, especially when they are, theoretically, the best football referees at any level.

The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back?
It Better Be

Speaking of the media’s hypocrisy, as I write this, the post-game show (following this latest Packers-Seahawks fiasco) is airing on ESPN, and it is difficult to tell if the commentators are disgusted by the call or ecstatic about the opportunity for this to be an even bigger news story than it already is. Anybody who cares about sports enough to be reading this website knows that the call on the field was clearly wrong and at least should have been overturned upon replay.

In fact, my wife doesn’t like or care about football and barely knows the rules, but she knew, even before the replay, that it was not a catch. So I have no defense of that call—it was just horrendous and may single-handedly be enough to make me re-consider my statement above that the refereeing has generally be about as good as could be expected.

My hope is that this game is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and that it will force the NFL to finally relent from its position of greed and conceit in its labor dispute with its usual referees. Unfortunately, given Roger Goodell’s history, I just do not expect this to happen. With this referee lockout, just like the bounty issue, the concussions issue and the fines and suspension issue, he thinks he is the smartest guy in the room and that everyone else is wrong, not him. I understand what he is trying to do, or at least what he says he is trying to do.

I agree that referees should be judged and reprimanded more than they are now, but it seems to me that this is a convenient excuse he is using to also hold out on paying them more, which the referees do deserve as the only referees in major sports that are not full-time employees. None of that is the point, however. Goodell is too egotistical, too arrogant, too stubborn or all of the above to recognize that his product is suffering and that his customers, the fans, are suffering with it and that his employees, the players, are not just discontent but downright angry. I’ve heard at least five different commentators quote Steve Young on the inelasticity of the NFL product, a comment on which I agree, but in the short term only. If this continues, it will eventually leave lasting damage on the NFL. My only hope is that, if this ends up being the case, it will also signal the end of Goodell’s position as commissioner.

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