Black and White (and Gray All Over)

This one isn't all about our beloved 'Boys, but it affects the entire league as well as our Blue Star Brigade, so I thought I'd post this here too. If inappropriate for BTB, just let me know and I'll take it down. Anyway, here's a piece of my mind regarding the replacement refs.

I've long wondered what it was like to be a professional sports referee. Believe it or not, it's a tough job, spotting minor infractions at the speed of life in a fast-paced game, literally keeping split-second timing of the day's events, risking grievious bodily harm at the hands of an unruly color-coordinated mob by doing either of the above's a bigger job than most people immediately realize (and they're also in great shape, which you know if you've ever seen a ref sprint side-by-side or even backpedal alongside some of the fastest men on the planet with ease). Yes, in those black and white stripes lies much responsibility...but also, plenty of gray area.

Wait, let me not dive into this without some background. These referee ruminations were brought on after getting to read a little of ex-NBA zebra Tim Donaghy's tell-all book (a must-read for ANY sports fan) detailing his career as a referee, his gambling on games including some he worked, and the NBA's unofficial policy to favor certain players and teams over others when calling a game. Of course, the fact that the NBA consciously nudges games in one directon or another is apparent to anyone who's ever seen LeBron get sweated on and draw a foul, but having it confirmed in detail was a thinking point for me.

Concordantly, I got to thinking even more about the role of the ref during the first few weeks of the NFL season. In case you don't know, the referees' union for the League is locked out, and it was seen fit to bring in a bunch of Foot Locker employees, train them in the esoteric ways of the gridiron the week before the season started, and let 'em loose on the field of the finest football league the world has ever known. Naturally, the expected dropoff in quality of officiating happened, but then if a scab could perform at the level of a highly trained (did you know there's a referee college?) veteran employee, there would never be a labor dispute. A few missed holds and 15-yard helmet-to-helmets were what the NFL signed up for when they decided they could do without their official officials.

However, what gives me more pause is the human element involved. Not only are these unofficials hastily trained, they're also not as well paid. A normal referee can make upwards of $200,000 (yes, you can make more than the president for throwing flags) after half a decade of school and the other halfs' worth of experience. I'm going to go out on a limb and say they're not paying the replacements that. I found my old job on Craigslist too, and I didn't earn anywhere near that. How much do you figure it costs to put a replacement ref firmly in your pocket? I'm not sure a player or coach couldn't afford it.

Not only that, but remember these are just regular folk on the street. You know what a lot of regular folk on the street like? Football. You know what people who like football generally do? Pick a favorite team. You know what people with a favorite team would do if they could directly impact the game their team plays in a highly effective manner? I'll let you answer that one. Already there's been a case where a New Orleans Saints fan was scheduled to referee a Saints game (and he would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for his meddling self on Facebook). I refuse to decieve myself into thinking that he is the only fan in the ointment.

Going back to Donaghy again, however, presents the most interesting possibility of all. It's pretty widely believed that the NBA has its fingers in the outcome of their contests only slightly less than the WWE. Is it that farfetched that the other major sports might shade things in one player or team's favor in the interest of having a more compelling product? Could the NFL employ similar tactics, pushing big teams like the Steelers and minimizing the little guys?

Football is a game where refereeing can turn the tide more than most others. Most penalties are judgement calls. Spotting the ball after a play is at the ref's discretion, and could swing any given play a yard either way. Most star quarterbacks not named Romo already all but play flag football where the rules on touching them are concerned. A pass interference call is commonly the biggest play of a game, and is totally up to the official to call (or not call).

If anything other than the letter of the rule is encouraged or if anything is slanted in any way, we'll sure find out when it's game over for the replacements. Hey, they'll be unemployed (or back on the sales floor) soon, if anything at all is "interesting" how long do you think it'll take for the first juicy memoirs of a referreplacement to be published? It might not even take a publishing deal, it could just be more ill-thought-out Facebook shenanigans. Either way, I'm pretty sure an honest look at the inner workings of NFL officiating might be the only good thing to come out of this. I hope the game I love is clean, but I won't be shocked to find out otherwise. (I'm sure we've all had our doubts, mine specifically regarding a specific first down before a certain sequence in Seattle about 6 years back.)

In closing, like most football fans, I eagerly anticipate the return of the real refs. They're the best in the world at what they do, and like in so many other cases, it's never been more obvious than when somebody else is doing it. (Also, they don't throw their hats in the path of a streaking receiver like a banana peel to trip them up and break up a probable touchdown. Seriously, that happened.) I just hope the replacements don't f*ck anything up too badly in the meantime...on or off the field.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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