Football Needs Its Refs Back
Published: Friday, September 21, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 21, 2012 00:09
With the first two weeks of professional football now history, some trends are beginning to develop. Manning’s neck appears to be fine, the Cardinals look like they may defy everyone’s expectations and the Falcons and 49ers appear to be the teams to beat. But what has become most obvious is that the replacement referees have to go. Now.
At first, I was sympathetic toward the fill-in refs. While preseason gaffes like facing the wrong direction while making a call and accidentally thinking the 5-yard line was part of the end zone were amusing and made for great highlights on SportsCenter, I understood that there would be a learning curve.
By no means would the replacement refs be on the same level as the league’s normal officiating crews, but the NFL should be able to round up enough people that know enough about football not to damage the on-field product.
But on Monday Night Football this week, the replacements were finally too much to bear. After clearly making a mistake in calling a penalty on a play when there was none, the head coach of the Denver Broncos rushed to the nearest referee to explain the rules to one of the individuals tasked with enforcing those rules.
Is there another league where the coaches and players have to explain the rules to the referees?
In sports, coaches and players normally try to push the rules as much as possible to give their team an advantage. Whether they manifest as a flop in soccer or trapping a ball in baseball, attempts to dupe the referees are a part of every sport.
While such calls are often the subject of debate on sports talk shows and between announcers, it rarely decides the outcome of a game. That assumes, however, that the referees in question are competent and experienced.
Instead, the situation in the NFL is like an NBA where LeBron James would be allowed to explain a travel to a referee. When coaches and players must try to help officials, a conflict of interest has been created that will eventually result in unfairness.
None of this means that the referees are intentionally altering the outcome of games; instead, it’s that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to use replacement officials instead of caving into the union on strike is starting to make a noticeable impact on games.
In normal times, the quality of an officiating crew is often judged by how little they are noticed in a game. If the officials do not alter the game and nobody talks about their performance, then they have done an admirable job.
But discussing the replacement referees to this extent means that their actions are causing the media and fans to raise questions, and in this case, there are a lot. One such question is how the NFL could assign a Saints fan — who even advertises his allegiance on Facebook — to a Saints game?
In a perhaps more benign — but equally troubling — case first reported by CBS, one replacement official even informed an NFL player during a game that the player was on his fantasy football team.
On top of struggling to make the correct calls, these refs are even struggling to act like professionals, a huge red flag for anyone concerned with integrity.
At this point, it is clear that Goodell should pay the officials on strike any amount they demand in order to end the embarrassment of the horrible replacements. Even the most generous of settlements would be minimal compared to the league’s revenues, which risk being dented as more attention falls on the situation.
But if he caves, Goodell may not be able to withstand the blow to his image. After last season’s lockout, the handling of the Saints’ suspensions and now the referee crisis, he has been revealed as someone who places his ego before the success of the league.
With the NFL concussion issue growing under the radar, the commissioner is instead focused on saving face on an issue as basic as paying his employees.
Goodell should have the sense to allocate the league’s resources toward the long-term health of its players, not trying to convince the public that replacement referees are able to handle the pressures of making calls out of a complicated rulebook in front of thousands of rabid fans.
Corey Blaine is a senior in the McDonough School of Business. THE BLEACHER SEATS appears every Friday.