Game Over: Time to Bring the Real Refs Back

This was supposed to be the year that football was back.  Fans grew tired of the endless stories in the summer of 2011 of the NFL Lockout and the endless negotiations, and now that there was a ten year agreement between the players and the owners, what appeared to be a normal offseason and normal summer was leading into training camp.  Optimism was high for the 2012 season.

No one wanted to hear about the NFL locking out the referees and an impasse between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association.  No one goes to the games to watch the referees.  They want to see the players play.  So when the NFL announced that they would be using replacement refs, there was some concern, but conventional wisdom said that there wouldn’t be a serious impact on the games.  And the NFL felt like they had won – football would go on as always.  The normal refs wouldn’t be missed, and the NFL’s position would get stronger with each week of games.

The NFL, and conventional wisdom, were dead wrong.

No one could have foreseen just how much the replacement refs would affect games.  Monday night’s debacle, with a call that was clearly incorrect on the final play of the game, is just the latest and most dramatic example.  And the now ubiquitous image of the two referees standing over the players, one signaling touchdown and one signaling incomplete pass, has given the outrage its “Tommie Smith” image.

And this is only one example.  Look at the end of the Patriots-Ravens game, a game where the replacement refs failed to control a heated rivalry and looked like impotent substitute teachers being hit with spit balls.  A game where the usually reserved Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was pushed to the point where he grabbed a referee by the arm to ask a question about review of the final play, as the replacement ref looked to get off the field as quickly as possible, like a substitute teacher at the bell.

Look at the Cowboys game, when Kevin Ogletree mysteriously slipped in the end zone until a replay revealed that the referee inexplicably threw his hat onto the field and right under Ogletree’s foot.  Referees do use their hat to mark a spot where a player went out of bounds, but no one had gone out of bounds and the hat was thrown into the thick of the action rather than along the sidelines.  It obviously affected the play and could have resulted in a serious injury.

And on the subject of injuries – tarnishing the integrity of the game is bad enough, but the failure of the replacement referees to correctly call downfield contact, control the emotions that run high during games, or police head-to-head contact is going to make the game more dangerous as well.

The NFL is the most valuable sports league in the world for a reason – because of the fans that follow the sport, which drives TV and stadium revenue.  And the fans follow the sport because of the quality of play that they see on the field.  Like it or not, the referees are a key ingredient in the quality of that product.

Monday Night showed that the owners overplayed their hand.  They thought they held all the cards, but in fact the referees have a far bigger impact than the owners wanted to admit.

The fans are fed up, the players are fed up and the coaches are fed up.  It’s time for the NFL to blink.  Pay the referees what they are worth and bring them back as soon as possible so that the fans can get back to enjoying the performances on the field every week instead of smacking their heads over the missed calls of the replacements.

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