Now that the National Football League owners have successfully revealed themselves to be a collection of tightwads and nitwits, could we please, as a people, use this moment to pay homage to the struggling concept of expertise?
You know exactly what those owners were thinking. They pay obscene sums of money to the players, who perform in ridiculously expensive stadiums, some of which, heaven forbid, the owners even funded themselves. The television audience isn’t going anywhere, except maybe to the kitchen for another beer and a fresh bag of Doritos.
So who cares about the officials? Let’s save a few bucks. Buy some new striped uniforms, make sure the whistles work, and tell the replacements to act decisive. Really, what’s the worst that could happen?
Well, pretty much everything, it ends up. It’s been a veritable train wreck on the field in game after game, from one city to the next, undermining the entire concept of fair competition in a sport that is governed by a lengthy list of often complicated rules. The game could operate much more efficiently with replacement owners than replacement officials.
But why is it surprising that the NFL owners thought they could get away with a collection of second-raters as officials when society basically stopped honoring expertise a long time ago?
Put another way, we live at a time when Rick Santorum proudly declares, “We will never have the elite, smart people on our side.” And by that, he was apparently bragging. We watch as US Senator Scott Brown spits out the salutation “Professor” when describing his opponent, Elizabeth Warren, as if education and accomplishment are something to be derided rather than celebrated.
Every politician, Republican and Democratic, figures if she or he says something often enough, loud enough, for long enough, then it’s got to be true. So tax cuts for the wealthy create more jobs, even if every reputable economist and the recent history of America refute it.
In this vein, global warming is a hoax and evolution is just a theory. Forget what scientists say, the people who have dedicated their lives to studying such things. No, elected officials have a different take, and it’s theirs that counts.
Maybe it’s the fact that everyone has a forum now, Facebook and Twitter, blogs and self-published books, online comments and reviews. Everyone is an expert traveler, book reviewer, food critic.
But here’s the flip side to this small-d democratization of society: If everyone is an expert, then the reality is that nobody is. Why waste time studying, experiencing, and contemplating, when you can simply devote yourself to articulating? If you say it, in public, then it matters as much as anything else. Right?
Sure. Until games are lost on bad calls, until the economy is stalled in its tracks, until lights come crashing down in the Big Dig because we hired a company that didn’t have a clue.
A handyman is not the same as a craftsman. A weekend gearhead is not a master mechanic. Not every Canon owner is an expert photographer. And believe me, not enough elected officials are experts in anything at all — except, perhaps, self-preservation.
Nobody’s suggesting that we blindly follow experts, unchallenged, though we should certainly respect what they do and say. Expertise is hard-earned. It comes from endless study, years of experience, humbling failures, and rare successes. It is the culmination of education, dedication, and skill.
But we toss this to the whims of convenience with alarming regularity, figuring, who needs it? We deride it, we distort it, and we devalue it.
Until we see the flip side, which can be disaster.
So when the real officials take the field Sunday, celebrate not just the restoration of the game, but the triumph of expertise.