Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 27, 2012

Zebras Win, Three Weeks Too Late

Perhaps it will not matter. When the gun sounds to end the final NFL regular season game on the evening of December 30, perhaps a one game change in the records of both Green Bay and Seattle won’t be decisive in whether either team makes the playoffs nor impact their seeding if they do. But in a season of just sixteen contests every one is critical and “perhaps” is just so much wishful thinking. That reality combined with the NFL’s enormous popularity and the millions of dollars wagered on every game all help to explain the enormous outpouring of rage and frustration from fans after replacement officials handed the Seahawks a victory Monday night by blatantly blowing two calls on the game’s final play.

As anyone not living in a cave already knows, with the clock ticking down the final eight seconds and his team trailing 12-7, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back in the pocket and lofted a desperate throw toward the left side of the Packer’s end zone. There receiver Golden Tate first committed offensive pass interference by shoving a Green Bay defender to the ground. Then as Wilson’s pass dropped from the sky Tate was out jumped by Packer safety M.D. Jennings. Jennings caught the ball and only as he fell to the ground with the game-ending interception did Tate lay his hands on the pigskin. Yet despite what ESPN’s broadcast crew and millions of viewers clearly saw, that sequence resulted in a non-call of pass interference on Seattle and a signaling of touchdown for the Seahawks. After an interminable review that had become the norm during the three weeks that replacement officials were used, that ruling was allowed to stand based on the NFL’s simultaneous catch rule which gives possession to the offense; thus giving a new, time-lapsed meaning to the word “simultaneous.”

The 14-12 Seattle victory led commentators, fans, and a significant number of NFL players to take to the airwaves, blogs, and social media to decry that fact that in the season’s third week the inevitable had finally happened; a game’s outcome had been directly determined by the bumbling of replacement officials the NFL was utilizing while locking out the league’s unionized referees. A chorus of complaints about the replacements that had been building since the preseason reached a crescendo Monday night and on into Tuesday morning, and not just in Wisconsin.

Yet even as the blown calls became discussion material amongst the most casual of fans, NFL owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell at first appeared determined to ride out the storm. On Tuesday afternoon the league released a statement that was remarkable for its vacuity. It first acknowledged that the Seahawks should have been called for pass interference, but ignored the fact that a yellow flag floating to the ground in the Packers’ end zone would have resulted in a different final score. Instead the statement went on to discuss at considerable length, with detailed citations of various rules, why the game’s referee was correct in deciding to not overturn the initial, and obviously erroneous, ruling on the field.

If the statement, which had all of the passion of a legal brief in a copyright infringement case, was meant to calm angry fans, it failed miserably. Calls for the NFL to reach a settlement with the locked out referees intensified. I spoke with some fans who seemed serious in their pledges to find Sunday afternoon activities away from their flat screens as long as the replacements continued to call the games. Increasingly commentary focused on the miniscule nature of the financial dispute with the officials union for the $9 billion NFL, making the owners seem like little more than petty bullies.

It now appears that at least some of those bullies took note of the screaming rabble figuratively marching in the streets outside their gated estates. Talks with the NFL Referees Association, which had started up again over the weekend, suddenly became more urgent. A lengthy Tuesday session gave way to marathon negotiations on Wednesday, culminating in the announcement of an agreement late Wednesday night. From what is known of the details of the new eight-year contract, that agreement must be considered a clear win for the union. Current officials will be allowed to keep their pension plan for the next five years, which was the union’s principal demand. The contract also includes significant salary increases and allows existing officials to remain part-time, a situation which only days earlier the NFL had appeared intent on changing.

This being the first labor dispute that any North American sports league can be considered to have lost in years, it is tempting to hail the moment as some great victory for the fans who revolted after Monday night’s debacle and for the workers who ultimately benefited from the widespread condemnation of Goodell and the owners. But a more clearheaded view is that this is ultimately a financially insignificant and temporary setback for management, a product of a wound that was truly self-inflicted.

That the league’s dispute with its officials was never about the money is beyond question. The $3.2 million that separated the sides before the final negotiations represents four hundredths of one percent of the NFL’s annual revenue. It’s less than one-third of Goodell’s $10 million 2012 salary. It’s equally certain that Goodell and the owners need only look in the mirror to see the source of their undoing. It was pure hubris on their part to think that the regular whistle blowers could be replaced by officials with experience limited to high school and lower level colleges. Just because their shirts also had black and white vertical stripes doesn’t mean they had the same level of experience, training, or knowledge; nor that they could possibly jump the yawning chasm between the speed and complexity of pro games and the ones they were used to officiating. If instead they thought that the role of officials in managing and controlling a game simply wasn’t that significant, then Goodell and the owners were as stupid as they were arrogant.

Yet for all that they almost got away with it. Through three weeks of play the stadiums were still full, and television ratings were as solid as ever. An estimated $400 million was wagered worldwide on Monday night’s game alone. Fans were willing to ignore a plethora of bad calls and non-calls in game after game. Extra timeouts were awarded teams, and challenges allowed when a head coach had none left to make. On Sunday in Tennessee, the Titans received a gift of twelve extra yards in their overtime scoring drive against the Lions when a 15-yard penalty against the Lions was marked off from Detroit’s 44-yard line, not Tennessee’s 44, which had been the actual line of scrimmage.

Even as coaches went apoplectic and heavy fines were issued by the league, fans were willing to take their NFL football fix in a badly diluted version. Only when the bad officiating finally rolled right past maybe, possibly, okay probably affecting a game’s outcome did we fans rouse from our torpor. Only when there was irrefutable evidence, as they say during reviews, that the season records of two teams were forever changed by the replacement officials did we finally take notice. Rather than a great victory for fans the words that come to mind are more along the lines of shame on us.

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