September 28, 2012

Editorial: A mountain out of a molehill


---- — The idea that replacement officials imperiled the purity of the game in the National Football League is, frankly, inane.

Complaints about referees have flourished as long as a pigskin has been tucked under an arm. Because a labor action heightened sensitivities and hostilities, some people wanted everyone to believe football is dangling over the precipice.

NFL game officials were locked out because of failure to agree on a new contract, although a tentative eight-year contract was reached late Wednesday. Union members will vote today and Saturday on whether to ratify the contract.

Work stoppages and labor unrest are certainly not unique to football. Teachers, clerks, plumbers — members of every occupation in America covered by a labor contract — sooner or later will have some level of discord when the contract expires.

The replacement officials were under unprecedented scrutiny. The players — who, as union members themselves are sympathetic with the game officials they vilify under normal circumstances — and the fans were like animals of prey waiting for the kill: a blown call.

They had a beauty of one during Monday night's game between Green Bay and Seattle, where a notable bad call incorrectly decided the outcome in Seattle's favor. The ruling was immediately blasted all around.

People forget how many times regular officials's decisions wrongly handed over a game. They are part of NFL lore, as much as Steeler Franco Harris's “immaculate reception” or the Jets' Joe Namath's fulfilled promise of an upset in Super Bowl III.

What makes replacement officials' errors so offensive today is the extent to which bets are placed on NFL games. Betting — illegal outside Nevada — is among America's favorite pastimes, inside and well outside the casinos. Millions and millions of dollars are bet every week, in office pools, locally administered pick sheets and offshore phone accounts.

All that betting makes game outcomes a personal matter to many fans. No wonder the NFL switchboard had 70,000 calls after that Green Bay-Seattle game. Most were probably from people who had just watched their wallets get lightened by a faulty decision by a referee.

Football commentators self-righteously declared that the game had been tarnished by the replacement refs.

But, the game already had plenty to tarnish it: illegal, potentially lethal hits; cheating by coaches who illegally tape other teams' practices; “bounties” by defenders on quarterbacks.

A few bad calls are not going to torpedo the reputation of the NFL — whether made by replacements or the real referees.