Why I Love the NFL Replacement Referees

By Finesse

As has become recent American tradition, the national media has embraced another opportunity to unite in outrage and indignation.  This month’s target is the NFL replacement referees, and the punditry is up in arms. The integrity of the league is at stake.  The integrity of gambling is at stake.  The integrity of Facebook is at stake.  The integrity of fantasy football is at stake.  And, according to Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, players’ lives are at stake.

I love the replacement refs.  That’s partly because anything that unanimously upsets the sports media and leads to endless one-upping over who is more outraged and who can be more dramatic is something I support.  But more importantly, I love the replacement referees because they’re real people.

The simplest way to put it is that these are a bunch of little old men playing pretend.  It’s cute!  They’re like Civil War reenactors who suddenly found themselves in the Battle of Antietam.

“Automatic … first down!!!”

And, unlike those stuffy regular referees who have highfalutin regular jobs, the replacement refs are just like us!  They have fantasy teams, they pledge their fan-loyalties on Facebook, and so much other stuff!

The truth is that the replacement-ref-bashing is not merely an overblown story to fire up talk radio listeners; it’s pummeling an easy scapegoat to hide bigger problems.

Find out the truth after the jump…

The hand-wringing from Jenkins and others over the replacement refs is a convenient distraction from the ineptitude of people with a lot more experience who are getting paid a lot more money.  Take John Fox.  Last Monday night, he went ballistic about a too-many-men-on-the-field call, committed verbal manslaughter on the officials, and then threw a challenge flag. Guess what?  There were 12 men on the field.  If not for the announcers harping on some earlier missed call by the replacements, they might have had to, you know, actually talk about it.

Obviously, there have been some historically bad calls made by the replacements, but it’s not like the regular referees are so much better.  (Another example, per ESPN: “Instant replay reviews are way up, an increase of 16. But the percentage of reversals is way down: 23 this year out of 62 as opposed to 21 of 46 in 2011.”)

…and another example

The game has evolved to being virtually impossible to officiate well.  The players are unnaturally enormous and have the same regard for their bodies as Lindsay Lohan has for pedestrians.  The rule book is hundreds of pages long and there are eight Harvard grads in every broadcast booth Ctrl+F’ing their way through it to find some minute detail from a rule no one’s ever heard of.  Every game is filmed with fifty super high-def, super slow-mo cameras to a national audience of armchair referees with Twitter accounts.  Coaches masquerading as grown men are engaged in embarrassing histrionics to distract your attention away from the field.   If it wasn’t lucrative, it wouldn’t be worth the aggravation.

Not how grown-ups behave.

And therein lies the bigger problem with the lockout and refereeing generally: the NFL has it backwards.  Instead of nickle-and-diming the refs, the league should both give the refs more and demand more from them.  The premise in Jenkins’ article that refs should lower their demands because they only have to work 16 Sundays may make sense economically, but isn’t it possible that only working 16 Sundays is the very reason why the refereeing isn’t great?

Jenkins’ and others’ worst misfire, however, comes when they assign responsibility for player safety on everyone but the players.  The league’s responsibility is to give the player’s world-class medical care, complete information about the risks of the sport, and a rule-book that helps protect the players while at the same time keeping the sport popular so everyone can make lots of money.  The referees’ responsibility is to enforce those rules.

But it’s the players’ responsibility to abide by them.  So if (when) Troy Polamalu launches himself headfirst into Darren McFadden this weekend and they’re both decapitated, it will be no one’s fault but his own. It certainly not going to be the fault of the replacement referees; after all, aren’t the pending billion-dollar lawsuits against the league based on hits that happened while the regular referees were still reffing?

Textbook form.

Maybe Jenkins’ point was more narrow, that the risk is that refs can’t control sideline pushing-and-shoving and this will eventually lead to a fight where players get hurt.  Maybe it will, although that seems unlikely given that almost all of these scuffles are merely posturing for the cameras.  But even if some fight does break out this weekend, why preemptively absolve the players of blame for it?  Aren’t they the ones who would be flagrantly violating the rules and jeopardizing “player safety?”

The replacement refs have been bad.  The regular referees are better, though not by much.  And the NFL has its priorities backwards.  But however this resolves, let’s hope it’s not compelled by the pen of fake-outrage and misdirected blame.  Instead, a resolution should be crafted to solve the one indisputable problem finally and conclusively revealed by this replacement referee experiment: it’s really hard to be a referee.

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