Monday, 24 September 2012

NFL owners must end their lockout of their referees

After another weekend of bizarre situations and questionable calls by replacement refs, we saw two debacles to end it off, with Bill Belichik running and grabbing after an official on the Sunday night game, trying to get an explanation on the game-ending field goal and, more probably, their entire oeuvre that evening, and now a farcical performance by the crew working the Monday Night Football game.

The replacement refs have been having an underlying effect on the games since they started working them.  At first, they weren't calling pass interference penalties as stringently as they should have, and we saw a lot of low-scoring games and upsets as a result in the first couple of weeks.  We saw them lose control of games, some of them dragging on so long that I missed out on some game endings and had to adjust my PVR settings accordingly.

One effect that hasn't been mentioned is the amount of jawing and woofing that goes on now, constantly.  This blight on the game had been effectively curtailed during the previous seasons, when jabbing your facemask into someone else's to taunt or dis them was grounds for an unsportsmanlike conduct 15-yard penalty.  This season, I have yet to see a flag for such behaviour, which is now endemic, and the source for a lot of the scrums and shenanigans we see after most whistles seemingly.

This weekend, we saw an avalanche of yellow flags, as the NFL circled the wagons and probably instructed the ersatz zebras to tighten the calls on defensive backs.  And we now understand why they weren't calling more penalties.  It was not as a misguided attempt to 'let them play', it's simply that they can't make the right calls, the speed of the game is evidently too high for them.  It seems as if every call or non-call is a toss-up, whether they're nailing it or shanking it.  I can do just as well at home with my trusty flipping quarter.

We have probably reached the Rubicon, and NFL management has to decide whether they'll cross it, or back down and come to terms with their real referees, the actual pros of the game, who while imperfect, are now shown to be effective in the overwhelming majority of cases, and to be decisive and fully, functionally knowledgeable of the rules of the game.

The sad part out of all of this is that the NFL are having a principled disagreement with their staff.  This isn't about dollars and cents so much as it is about NFL owners trying to wrest more money from the refs to pile on to the staggering fortunes they already make from their teams.  The NFL isn't on the brink of financial insolvency, this isn't necessary for the survival or even the profitability of the league.

The refs are not holding out for more money, an unreasonable raise, or anything crazy.  The refs aren't on strike.  They're being locked out by the owners.  The reason they're being locked out by the owners is that they're being asked to give up the pension they currently earn and accept a vastly inferior version, one with a 'defined contribution' instead of a 'defined benefit'.  So now instead of a pension that will pay out a set amount upon retirement, an amount that they can plan their life around, they are now asked to take a glorified mutual fund account that will be subject to the vagaries of the stock market and the piratical penchants of Wall Street.

The NFL's reason for the change?  As weak as their moral fibre.  They say that since they already beat down their other employees and wrestled away their pensions, they now need to beat down the referees as well.  It wouldn't be "fair" to their other employees not to.  I'm not making this up.  This is their reasoning.

I'm sure if you asked any client of the NFL, anyone who buys tickets or jerseys or the Sunday Ticket package or a case of Budweiser, none of them would begrudge the officials a tiny slice of that purchase so that they can have a reasonable pension that allowed them to retire in dignity and security.  None of them would vote that that money should rather go into Paul Allen's pocket.  Anyone who did would do so out of bitterness that they themselves are deprived of such a pension by the climate that reigns currently in Corporate America and North American society as well.

Roger Goodell has been a bit of a crusader since becoming Commissioner, to various degrees of effectiveness.  He has often punished players for off-field transgressions that he claimed tarnished the image of the league.  He now has to wear this fiasco of a lockout.  It's on him.  And he has to fix it.  He has to bring his vaunted conciliatory and persuasive powers to bear on the owners and convince them that they must drop their demands of the officials to get a deal done, for the good of the game.

Better yet, the vaunted 'conscience' of the game, the long-time owners like the Rooneys and the Maras, Bob Kraft who cried arm-in-arm with Jeff Saturday last summer, need to intervene and to put a stop to this.  They need to bring everyone to their senses and protect their own legacy, their very business.  Everyone in the owners circle must understand that their principled stance, repugnant no matter how they try to spin it, must end.  They are damaging their product and image for a trifling amount in the grand scheme of things.

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