There are lots of fascinating stories in this young NFL season. The dominant 49ers are one. Greg Schiano's bush leaguery is another. But the most interesting storyline, without a doubt, is the effect of the replacement referees -- who are being used as scabs in a labor dispute with the regular referees -- on the "integrity" and "watchability" of the game.
Now, much of the hullabaloo has been largely unwarranted. The replacement referees, who were drawn from the college and semi-professional ranks (if you consider the "Lingerie League" to be a semi-professional league), have generally done a fairly decent job. Sure, there have been rough patches here and there. But there have been no blown calls that had any real ramifications on the outcome of any contest (though the extra timeout for the Seahawks in Week One could've been pretty bad), and there has been far less outcry about the refs performance after Week Two than there was after Week One. And though I never take kindly to scabs, I must admit that officals' performance this week to the eye of a casual fan, was mostly indistinguishable from the past performances of the regular refs that they have replaced until at least Week Five. The labor dispute is bad, but the football? In my opinion, still quite watchable.
Yet, based upon the reviews of a quadrumvirate of fans, players, coaches and broadcasters, who want Goodell bring back the normal referees, I may be in the minority. Broadcasters have been quick to point out missed calls by the replacement referees, with noticable disdain in their voices. St. Louis Rams' fans chanted "Referees Suck" in full force this past Sunday. And even Allison and I (stone caster that I am) incredulously pointed out a slew of missed calls in the 49ers-Packers game, and ridiculed the refs for their timid demeanor around players who they'd probably rather get an autograph from, rather than whistle for roughing the passer. And the players and coaches haven't been silent either. Joe Flacco and Ray Lewis eviscerated the refs after the Ravens lost to the Eagles, and Mike Shanahan and Jason Garrett both took exception to some missed calls in their games. In all of these complaints, a singular issue emerges: the integrity of the game. The general sentiment amongst the fans, players, coaches and broadcasters who have to interact with the refs, have mostly agreed that the replacement referees, for all the good and bad that they do, have compromised some aspects of integrity in the game of football.
"Integrity" (and it's marketing and advertising equivalent, "watchability") in officiating seems to be very much in the public consciousness of sports consumers, perhaps nowhere more strongly than the National Basketball Association. This past season, the referees were constantly under fire for "bad calls", from journalists, bloggers, fans, players and coaches alike. In particular, the issue of "flopping" -- where an defensive player sells contact from a driving player in an effort to draw an offensive foul -- became a major focus for those who spend a lot of time around the game, either in person, or in front of a television, computer, or mobile device. Jeff Van Gundy has become the movement's informal leader, based upon a rant he made while calling a Knicks game for ABC. TrueHoop even launched a series that set out to "Stop the Flop" by suggesting innovative ways to penalize players who are known floppers, or punish referees who continually fall for flopping. While the focus mostly was on the players who got away with flopping, there was a fair amount of hatred directed at the referees who let the floppers flop. They were the ones who allowed the integrity of the game to be compromised.
In many ways, regardless of sport or situation, referees cannot win. They are tasked, along with players, coaches, and broadcasters, with keeping the game fair, watchable, and entertaining through their honest efforts. Aside from the obvious bad apple -- the crooked, mob-connected Tim Donaghy -- we have absolutely no evidence that refs do anything except study the rules, take classes, integrate useful technology, and call games to the best of the human and professional abilities. Yet players, coaches, fans and broadcasters lambast them regularly for failing to make the proper call after an infraction (which lasts but a millisecond, and is often indistinguishable from a non-infraction) is committed, and usually, after instant replay confirms (or denies, though that is rarely admitted) their assertions. To protect their officials (or is it to protect themselves?), professional league offices collect fines from players, coaches and owners who criticize the zebras, but that fine money goes to various unlisted charities, and not to the refs themselves. And then, when it comes down to negotiating a fair contract, so professional sports can maintain their integrity, and remain watchable, leagues can hold out forever, pinching pennies because refs, in the end, can be easily replaced, even for the long haul.
While we are seeing this play out in the NFL, this has happened in the NBA several times in the past. There have been a number of referee strikes which required the NBA to hire replacement referees to call games. 1995 was the last time a replacement ref officiated a regular season game, and 2009 was the last time a replacement ref officiated a preseason game. While some strikes have been worse than others, two similarities seemingly emerge from all of them. Firstly, the replacement referees get better. As Howard Beck reported in a 2009 article, a number of high profile regular referees -- Joey Crawford, Kenny Mauer, Bill Kennedy, Eddie Rush, Leon Wood and Derrick Stafford are among their ranks -- started off as scabs who learned the job better than the guys who they were being paid to replace. So the notion that something bad is coming in the NFL because replacement refs are there is ludicrous; they can only get better at their jobs, not worse. Secondly, when the refs come back -- and they will come back, lest Roger Goodell go all Ronald Reagan on us -- everyone, for a little while, is going to be ecstatic. Chris Webber famously let out a whoop of joy when he was told the regular refs were coming back to the NBA in 1995, and one can expect Joe Flacco and Ray Lewis to follow suit when their zebras return to the NFL.
Of course, it will be fleeting. Soon, all of us will be moaning and groaning about blown calls, terrible officiating, and clearly crooked refs. Soon, all of us will be falling back to our old ways. When a call is missed, we won't assume that the most obvious conclusion -- that even the refs are human, and at best, must make a 50/50 call on something that happens just once, for a millisecond -- and will instead settle on conspiracy theories, profanity-laced tirades, and preposterous propositions ("Man I could do a better job than these guys.") These are the tried-and-true plays of a Monday morning quarterback, or an armchair point guard.
But for a minute there, we will all rejoice. In our eyes, order will be restored, and all will be balanced. I ask you to remember that moment when Joey Crawford calls another offensive foul on whomever Reggie Evans is guarding, and everything just seems offensive and wrong. Really folks, it's not that bad.