Thursday September 27, 2012

Rumor has it, the NFL and the referees are close to making a new deal that could bring the real refs back to the field as soon as Sunday.

Though we football fans might be crossing our fingers, we’re not holding our collective breath.

There are really only two ways to force the NFL to agree to a new contract with its referees.

The first is for fans to not attend the games or to turn off their TVs until the dispute is resolved. The second is for players to refuse to take the field.

Unfortunately, we doubt either will happen.

For many Americans, everything about football reeks of ritual, something they can’t live without. Some have even called it the Church of the Holy Pigskin.

And the players?

Despite the botched calls made by replacement referees in the first three weeks of the season, their own love of the game will probably override their frustration with the less-than-stellar officiating.

The issue really came to a head during this week’s Monday Night Football game, in which a call determined the winner in the contest between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers.

Locally, New England Patriots fans are still seething over a number of calls that were made during the Sunday game versus the Baltimore Ravens, which the Patsies lost.

Sports writer Charlie Pierce thinks the Patriots/Ravens game might have been symbolic of all the problems on the field.


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Despite the amazing play by the players, he wrote, "Salted throughout all this action, of course, were bizarre holding calls, odd interference calls, some purely psychedelic calls, and a game-winning field goal that was so close that, all his frustrations coming to a boil, New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork looked very much like he might eat one of the referees who were standing under the goal posts."

The battle is over $16 million, which Pierce has said the NFL could find under its sofa cushions.

NFL revenues are more than $9.3 billion a year and could soon reach $12 to $14 billion. According to the Guardian’s Nicolaus Mills, the referees are seeking benefits that they put at $16.5 million over the five years of a new contract.

"In a 32-team league that amounts to just $500,000 per team, less than what a typical pro player earns in a single season," wrote Mills, who noted the average salary for an NFL player is $1.9 million.

The 121 regular NFL referees, most of whom hold other jobs, receive on average $149,000 for the season.

The day after the Green Bay loss to Seattle, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers said the NFL’s willingness to use replacement officials who aren’t up to the task is a sign that the league cares more about money than it does about tarnishing the game.

"I just feel bad for the fans," Rodgers said on the show. "They pay good money and the game is being tarnished by an NFL who obviously cares more about saving a little money thAn having the integrity of the game diminish a little bit. Our sport is generated, the multi-billion dollar machine is generated, by people coming to watch us play. And the product that is on the field is not being complemented by an appropriate set of officials. The games are getting out of control."

Most importantly, wrote Chris Smith of Forbes, the health of the players is at risk.

"Devastating helmet-to-helmet hits are going uncalled, like the one that left Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey unconscious and strapped to a stretcher on Sunday," wrote Smith. "Vicious uncalled hits were also laid on quarterbacks Matt Schaub, Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo, players who are supposed to be protected by especially stringent rules about hitting the passer."

As Smith noted, while the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and its players prohibits player strikes, a federal labor law allows employees to refuse work when their employment puts them in "abnormally dangerous conditions."

"So players could be justified in striking if the use of replacement officials further endangers the players’ safety," wrote Smith. "A player boycott on the grounds of player safety would not only protect the players from an increased chance of injury, but it may also be the only way to force the league’s hand in the referee lockout."

As Pierce wrote, it’s the NFL players’ lives, their bodies and the heart of players such as Baltimore’s Torrey Smith, whose brother died the night before the Ravens/Patriots game, that are at risk.

"(They) deserve better than to be made complicit in dishonest vaudeville," wrote Pierce. "At the end of this farcical exercise in corporate avarice, and whenever he has determined that his ego has been sufficiently fluffed and his power sufficiently recognized throughout the land, commissioner Roger Goodell should take his entire 2012 salary and split every dime of it up among the players in the National Football League, because they are the ones he’s putting at risk and they are the only ones keeping the NFL from descending into a form of opéra bouffe that would embarrass roller derby."

But Smith doesn’t hold out much hope that the players, or the fans, will strike.

"Ratings are soaring despite the officiating gaffes, and they show no signs of slowing down," he wrote.

So while we scream at the missed calls, shake our heads over penalties that didn’t happen and roll our eyes in disbelief at the comedic antics of the replacement refs who are obviously in deep over their heads, NFL fans continue to tune in, cheer on their teams and swallow the absurdity of a billion-dollar enterprise being officiated by second-stringers.

We’re not so sure who’s most at fault for this ongoing debacle: The fans or the NFL, but most assuredly, if we all stopped watching, stopped buying the paraphernalia and refused to engage in fantasy football, Goodell wouldn’t have much choice to settle in favor of the real referees.