It is said that silence can speak volumes. In the case of the National Football League, it’s the sound of a replacement referee stammering and stumbling through a penalty explanation heard loud — but not clear — that speaks volumes about the utter folly of the league’s plan to start the season with replacement officials.
The league has locked out the incumbent officials because it is locked in a labor dispute with them. A memo was sent by the league to the 32 teams Wednesday telling them of the plans to begin the regular season without the regular officials. Hours later, during the Patriots’ final exhibition game, there was replacement referee Don King turning a pair of penalties whistled on the Giants during a second-quarter punt into a football version of “The King’s Speech,” to the howls of the MetLife Stadium crowd.
King would have been better off acting like Red Sox owner John Henry and just explaining everything via e-mail.
Speech impediments are no laughing matter, but that wasn’t King’s problem. A lack of familiarity with NFL rules was. His gaffe was just the latest in a well-documented series of officiating faux pas this preseason that range from referring to teams by the wrong geographic locale to having to re-review video reviews. That’s why tossing a false-start flag at the NFL for its plan to use replacement officials to start the season is warranted.
Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be officials. It’s a thankless job. If you do a good job, it goes unnoticed. If you do a bad job, you’re a piñata.
After years of telling us how uniquely qualified their regular officials were, the NFL is basically trying to sell the football-consuming public the idea that anybody with a whistle and a dream can officiate games. The NFL memo made the replacements sound like martyrs, saying they “have persevered despite attacks on their qualifications and performance.”
It neglected to mention that such attacks have been justified.
The NFL is estimated to be at least a $9 billion industry, but you can’t put a price on player safety or integrity of the game. Yet that’s exactly what the NFL is doing.
Maintaining player safety and the integrity of the game are two of the crusades of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Just ask the New Orleans Saints, whom Goodell severely punished for having a bounty system that rewarded injuring opposing players.
Goodell suspended Saints coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 season. He banned New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games. Defensive end Will Smith got a four-game ban, and two former Saints players, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, also received suspensions. Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is serving an indefinite suspension.
When Goodell issued the player portion of the suspensions in May, he said: “It is the obligation of everyone, including the players on the field, to ensure that rules designed to promote player safety, fair play, and the integrity of the game are adhered to and effectively and consistently enforced.”
Well, as long as the NFL employs ersatz whistleblowers, it is defaulting on its own obligation to live up to the commish’s words. It’s also engaging in hypocrisy. Goodell issued a gag order earlier this summer on coaches and players criticizing the replacement refs. No complaining about your unsafe working conditions, guys.
The inability of NFL officials to competently adjudicate contests is a far greater threat to the integrity of the game than the Saints’ bounty program. The season the Saints won the Super Bowl, 2009, they had the 25th-rated defense in the NFL. The bounty was a greater threat to the integrity of the New Orleans defense than NFL games.
The NFL is a league that loves to brag about its parity, but when one game decided by one bad call could be the difference between playing in the postseason or sitting at home, you’re talking about a potential calamity, not to mention the unmentionable in the NFL — the gambling repercussions.
If you’re an NFL owner, you can either pay the real officials now or potentially pay later when one of the replacements botches a call that costs your team a game.
What’s the holdup? The league wants to make officials at each of the seven positions on the field full-time employees (NFL officials are currently part-time employees, many of whom draw significant income from real world, full-time jobs), convert the referees’ pension into a 401(k) plan, and expand the number of officiating crews to 20 to have the ability to replace or censure underperforming officials.
The NFL Referees Association is not blameless here. If NFL players and coaches are often fired for failing to perform up to standards, then officials should be subject to the same. The NFL is attempting to do what Major League Baseball already has, remove the notion that officiating jobs are like Supreme Court appointments — lifetime gigs.
But this preseason has proven that there are only so many people in the world capable of competently officiating NFL games. The rule book might be black and white, but it’s the skills of those who don the black and white stripes that give it any gravity.
This is a classic case of you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Ed Hochuli and his muscle shirts and the cool, composed timbre of Mike Carey have never looked or sounded so good.
The Real Referees’ best bargaining tactic is to continue to allow games to be played with the imposters recruited from, among other places, the Lingerie Football League.
No reason to wave the white flag when the guys throwing the yellow flags are raising red ones.