Monday, October 1, 2012


                The lockout of the National Football League refs has ended, and the sigh of relief at the announcement swayed large trees nationwide.  Now we can get back to watching football and drinking beer without tangential concerns. Who could ask for more?
                 But if the unpleasantness is over, the malady lingers on. If you were paying attention you knew that the NFL owners, who run the game, think so little of us fans that they believed we’d swallow a sub-par product without gagging.  You’ll recall that they did that once before in a more-direct way, by fielding so-called replacement-player teams when the players’ union went on strike in 1987. It took a long time for the smell of that rotten fish to dissipate, and it will take a while for this one, too.  The longer the better, I hope.

                 The treatment of the public by the owners is hard to fathom:  in what other business would a manufacturer befoul its product yet continue to offer it at full price? It would be like Mercedes-Benz losing a key engine part but fashioning a new one out of duct tape and popsicle sticks and sending the result to its dealers to peddle as though nothing had changed. I guess the concept of shame is foreign to those guys.
                 In true NFL spirit, let’s go to the replay to figure out what happened. What the lockout wasn’t about was money.  According to most reports the difference in the positions on salary and pensions of the league and the refs’ association when the lockout was declared last June amounted to about $3 million, an infinitesimal fraction of 1% of the league’s $9 billion annual take. The teams spend that much on Ace bandages, for heaven’s sake.
                To plumb what it was about will take some sociologizing, which I’m qualified to do because I have a degree in the subject (honest).  I think it’s about the chasm that separates the rich and rest in America these days, and about how little regard the former have for the latter.
                When I went to work as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones & Co., actually) in 1963, the boss (president) was Bernard “Barney” Kilgore. He knew what I did because he used to do it himself, before holding various editorships with the paper. He made more money than I did but not by an enormous multiple; once I was driven past his home in Princeton, N.J., and it looked like one I realistically could aspire to own.
               Today Dow Jones is headed by Rupert Murdoch. He’s richer than the gods and probably lives better.  Currently he’s busy feeding the employees of his British newspapers to the wolves for carrying out policies adopted under his stewardship.  If he were called to account he’d probably make some remark about crumbling cookies.
                 The NFL owners obviously had no appreciation of the referees’ skills or the difficulty of their jobs. They probably felt it beneath their dignity to have to negotiate with such pipsqueaks, the sort of ordinary-looking people they see walking around, antlike, below their tower-office windows. The moguls may tolerate making seven- or eight-figure deals with their players because the players’ arrogance of talent matches their own arrogance of wealth, but game officials lack such cachet. Easily overlooked, they seemed as easy to replace as call-center workers. So they were, and if they didn’t like it they could lump it. 
              What the owners did in hiring “replacement” refs was the equivalent of going to the local municipal pool, plucking out a bunch of middle-aged lap swimmers and convincing them to jump into a river full of piranhas. Anyone who’s watched an NFL game from the field knows that analogy isn’t farfetched.

                It was only a matter of time until the owners’ blindness was exposed. Week 1 of the season wasn’t so bad because football’s return was welcomed and the idea of “everyman” officials seemed cute, but by Week 2 their gaffes had become glaring and by Week 3 they were intolerable. It wasn’t so much that they blew moving violations, which the real refs also sometimes do (the main trouble is that so much extracurricular banging around is tolerated that penalizing it often seems arbitrary), but that they couldn’t get the easy stuff right, like the downs, ball spots or the number of permitted challenges or timeouts.

                Further, it was apparent that the newbies didn’t know what they saw even after they’d seen it. Play was repeatedly halted so the game officials could consult with unseen NFL types stationed in the press box areas. Trouble was, those meetings usually resulted in bad decisions being upheld, like that of the “Fail Mary” pass call in last Monday’s Packers-Seahawks game that broke the camel’s back. Coaches and players were wantonly ignoring league edicts for silence on the subject, and just about every sports columnist or blogger in the land was describing the situation with “f” words like “farce,” “fraud” or “fiasco.” The owners had no alternative but to capitulate.

                The truth is that few people on any of our top-level fields of play are more dedicated, competent or honorable than the game officials.  To get where they are they’ve served long apprenticeships that earned them little money or celebrity (my friend the ex-ref Jerry Markbreit started by calling intramural touch-football games at the University of Illinois). Most fully understand that they succeed best when they are noticed least, a difficult posture to maintain in a me-centered era.

                That they are being noticed now is a good thing, even though the reason isn’t. I don’t expect the owners to remember this for long, but the rest of us should.


mike levy said...

Great column, Fred.

How pathetic are the owners? But that same philosophy is prevalent in all sports. Look at hockey at the moment. Bastardball too. Greed, greed and more greed...a trait shared equally amongst the owners and players. The fans get the shaft.

Must all be Repug-licans.

andrew said...

I agree. Great column.