Yellow flags flying, coaches frying, replacement refs shrugging, video replays denying, Belichick’s wallet crying, Goodell’s rump roasting, network news shows guffawing, Hail Mary passes infuriating.
Wham bam, yes sir, that’s some football.
Sure was entertaining, huh? The first three weeks of the National Football League, stocked with those make-believe guys in stripes, captured the imagination and frayed the emotions the way the ill-fated, short-lived XFL once hoped, promised. Couldn’t just one of those on-field officials have suited up with a “He Hate Me’’ nameplate across his shoulders or maybe taped a “Kick Me’’ sign on Peyton Manning’s tattered Broncos butt?
“Saturday Night Live” feasted last night on what remained of the replacement refs’ picked-over carcasses. Whistles, flags, and stunned looks everywhere, including a bunch of replacement doctors circled around a patient’s hospital bed, proclaiming the poor slob dead even if he was still quite lucid.
No doubt the show’s writers went into shock themselves Wednesday night when the league and the officials’ union finally made peace on a new eight-year contract. A few more weeks like the first three and “SNL on the NFL’’ might have been incorporated into the network’s game day coverage.
Long the envy of professional sports worldwide, the league that Pete Rozelle so meticulously cultivated morphed into a rip-roaring vaudeville act by placing wannabes in charge of its product. Pay peanuts, get monkeys, and inevitably the business crumbles like Animal Crackers.
Game after game, underqualified refs, umpires, head linesmen, and various judges did the best they could, only for all of us to see — despite what the NFL continually preached — that too often their best was brutally, laughably inferior.
Sure, it all made for sensational comic theater, playing out on millions of TVs ’round the world, but a business that by most estimates grosses around $10 billion annually bought itself a patina of amateurism and buffoonery by engaging in a picayune fight over a truly low-budget line item.
Agreed, labor disputes are always about more than money, but they are mostly about money. The NFL is so big it can be deemed government, able to set prices however high it pleases and print currency at will.
In this dispute, the chief sticking point boiled down, by most accounts, to about $5 million, the dollars the NFL fought vociferously not to contribute to the officials’ pension pool. For a business that puts around 17 million fans in seats each season, that’s about 34 cents a ticket. I’d figure out the fraction of $5 million vs. $10 billion in gross revenue, but I can’t move the chains on that equation and figure where to spot the decimal point. Let’s just round it off to an embarrassing fraction.
As the weeks and miscues played out, I wondered when Roger Goodell might just scrap the whole on-field officiating idea and go one of two ways:
1. Put “Peggy” from USA Prime Credit in a centrally located NFL war room and have him watch games on TV and make the calls from his cluttered, coffee-stained desk. For challenges, coaches could call into Peggy’s hotline for fast adjudication, but we know how that would go with Peggy on the case. Heck, it probably would go just the way the call went on that Hail Mary pass last Monday night in Seattle.
Who knew that wrapping your arms around the guy who just intercepted your quarterback’s pass in the end zone constituted a touchdown? “I did!’’ Peggy would say. “Pass is complete. Seattle wins. Game over. You wish dispute? Three weeks. Four weeks if you need copy of decision.’’
2. Outsourcing. Same scenario, but instead of Peggy, every call would be channeled to the league’s call center in India, where an exceedingly polite, efficient employee would gladly help. “Hello, I am Hendry, with the Football League of the American and National Confederations, how may I help you today, sir?’’ he would greet each call.
I know customer service calls routed to India always make my day. I often start with, “Hey, thanks for taking my call, how’s the weather in Bangalore?’’ Or I go totally off the finely trained operator’s punch list and ask if he watched last night’s Red Sox game. “Red Sox?’’ he usually says. “I do not know these Red Sox.’’ Totally with you there, I tell him.
What a wonderful thing Thursday night, the first game with the regular guys in stripes back on the beat, to see the crowd in Baltimore give the smiling, high-fiving returnees a standing ovation when they took the field. My pal at the Buffalo News, sports columnist Jerry Sullivan, saw some hypocrisy in the warm greeting, tweeting the next morning that most people in the US today are anti-union. “Yet,’’ he said, “they give a bunch of football officials a standing ovation? Give me a break.’’
I’ve paid union dues every week of my journalistic life, not missing one payment since August 1977 at the then-Herald American. Six years there. Nearly three more at the New York Times. Now 27 more here at Morrissey Boulevard. More than 1,800 weekly payments. I like unions, proudly contribute my money, but I don’t feel in my heart that the applause was for the officials’ union or even for organized labor at large.
What I want to believe is that people in the stadium, as well as millions around the country, were acknowledging that, yes, labor still counts in our country. I know that sounds simple, but much of the US corporate world has conveniently forgotten that truth in recent times, especially the last 15-20 years.
It’s what I took away from it all: Labor matters, it counts, it makes a difference.
It seems to me, with the league finally capitulating when the heat of embarrassment got too high, that qualified, earnest, competent, hard-working employees indeed do make the company.
That doesn’t mean they built the company. That doesn’t mean they deserve to be partners or profit-sharers or even invited to a fancy boardroom dinner or golf outing or limo ride.
But they deserve fair wages, fair benefits, and above all, in this case, the respect of a company that found out that good labor, professionals with pride and dignity, actually protect and preserve a product, enhance its quality and ideally make it even more valuable.
All of that is worth applauding, and remembering. As sweet as the triumph was for the NFL officials, it was just as sweet for the millions upon millions of us who have seen our own proud stripes beaten into the ground lately.