No wonder. Football is America’s national sport. And with professional officials locked out by NFL owners and rent-a-refs taking the field, this season started off a total disaster: a series of missed calls, bad calls, and dangerous calls that slowed play, confused fans and players, and put players at risk. As The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin observed, it couldn’t have been any worse if owners had dressed Sacha Baron Cohen in black and white and put him in charge.
Still, owners might have gotten away with it, turning the tough business of knowing the rules and making the calls over to a bunch of “replacement refs,” most of whom had never worked anything more complicated than a junior college game, and some of whom were actually fired for incompetence by the Lingerie League. In fact, they did get away with it for four weeks. Until the farcical end to last week’s Green Bay Packers v. Seattle Seahawks game.
By now, we’ve all seen the tape countless times. With time running out, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s Hail Mary pass came down in the end zone among a tangle of players. Seahawks receiver Golden Tate made a grab for it, after pushing another player out of the way, but the ball was clearly caught by Packers safety M.D. Jennings. At which point, two confused replacement refs arrived on the scene. Standing side by side, one immediately declared “Incomplete Pass,” while the other signaled “Touchdown!” Ten minutes later, officials nevertheless awarded Tate the touchdown reception and the Seahawks won the game.
When public outrage erupted the next day, the NFL put out a statement confirming the Seahawk’s win, while declaring that officials should have charged Golden Tate with offensive pass interference — which would, of course, have invalidated the touchdown and the Seahawks’ win. Confused yet?
Never has one football play generated so much outrage or unanimous condemnation. From all sides. From high and low. Walking into the White House the next morning, the nation’s number one sports fan Barack Obama told reporters: “I’ve been saying for months we’ve gotta get our refs back.” Former President Bill Clinton also piled on. As did, most surprisingly, anti-union Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker and Congressman Paul Ryan. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers led a posse of players who took to Twitter to blast NFL owners, himself tweeting: “The game is being tarnished by an NFL that obviously cares more about saving some money than having the integrity of the game diminished a little bit.”
With pressure like that, NFL owners had to act, and they did. They sat down with leaders of the NFL Referees Association and within 48 hours hammered out a deal. NFL owners were granted a “bench” of new recruits from which they could pick replacements for underperforming refs. And referees were allowed to maintain their defined benefit pensions, rather than switching to a 401K plan, for at least eight years.
By the time you read this, the NFL lockout will be over and “real” refs will be back in charge, leaving many to ask: If this was so easy to resolve, why didn’t it happen a lot sooner? The answer is easy: This dispute could have been resolved sooner, and would have been resolved sooner — indeed, it would never have happened in the first place — were it not for the arrogance and obstinacy of billionaire NFL owners, Mitt Romney’s friends, who care only about the bottom line and don’t give a fig about fans, players, or the integrity of the game itself. The NFL pulls in more than $9 billion annually, but owners were still willing to destroy the game in their zeal to destroy the referees union.
Yet in so doing, the owners may have inadvertently taught the entire nation an important lesson. It’s a lesson even Wisconsin’s union-busting politicians Scott Walker and Paul Ryan learned the hard way. And it’s this: Whether it’s a case of autoworkers, ironworkers, steelworkers, cops, firefighters, teachers, air traffic controllers, or NFL referees: scabs can never do the job a good union worker can do.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.