For three weeks the owners and commissioner of the National Football League insulted fans, endangered players and generally made a mockery of the game by using the most bungling, incompetent replacement referees imaginable. The fact that they were getting away with it business-wise — attendance is on a par with 2011 and TV ratings for what they call their “product” are actually up — couldn’t hide their irresponsibility.
Whatever the merits of the league’s case in its lockout of the regular unionized referees over pension and job performance issues, it eventually realized that it was becoming a laughingstock and had to make concessions now to get them back on the field. And so they will be for Week 4.
Each week was worse. The more players and coaches saw of the replacement refs, the more blown calls and rule misinterpretations they had to endure, the more frustrated they got and less respect they had for them. And the more chaotic the games became as players on both teams, knowing they couldn’t count on the refs to get it right, tried to take advantage.
On almost every play someone was committing a penalty, hoping the refs would miss it or, as happened way too often, call it on the other guy. Or simply blow the call, as happened most egregiously in Monday night’s game, when the Green Bay Packers lost on the last play of the game as a clear interception by a Packers’ defensive back was instead ruled a touchdown catch by a Seattle Seahawks receiver.
Until this low point, the league could still argue that, while the officiating was bad it wasn’t that bad, and hadn’t directly affected the outcome of a game. No longer. The call that ended the Packers-Seahawks game was mind-boggingly bad, upheld even after a video review, and directly cost the Packers, a presumed Super Bowl contender, a victory. And a national television audience saw it all.
The commissioner loves to talk about the “integrity of the game” when it comes to such things as betting, off-season crimes committed by players and the New Orleans Saints’ bounty system. But for the last three weeks, NFL games had all the integrity of a train wreck.
This sorry situation could have been avoided by at least finding qualified replacement refs before the season started and giving them some extra training. Instead, in their arrogance and insularity, the commissioner and owners thought that fans wouldn’t notice or care. They were blind as the replacement refs, but now finally — after replay after replay of Monday night’s game — they see. And the real zebras are back.