Exploring the silver linings of a black and white issue
For the second straight year, labor issues clouded the NFL offseason. Thankfully, 2011’s version of a glorified staring contest (featuring Roger Goodell versus DeMaurice Smith) didn’t result in a work stoppage that forced the cancellation of any games. Commissioner Goodell had it under control the entire time, coercing the players into taking a less than favorable deal without ceding any of the extra-judiciary powers they bemoaned so loudly in the buildup to the labor dispute. Ol’ Red’s deft handling of the delicate matter was an exercise in decisive, effective leadership.
This year, on the other hand, Goodell is in a bit of a tight spot. The league’s failure to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement with their unionized officials has dragged into the regular season, meaning the games are being played with replacement referees. Watching the games, it’s apparent the replacements are overmatched. Simple calls are made to look difficult, difficult calls aren’t being made at all, and every coach on every team has had at least one moment when it looked as though cardiac arrest was imminent.
Sports talk radio shows, columnists, and even Mike Pereira, FOXSports’ own paid referee apologist, has declared that “enough is enough”, and it’s time for the regulars to return. Players (including Brandon Ayabandejo , Jared Allen and Joe Flacco, among others) have been openly critical of their performance. Announcers skewer them over their missteps. Fans grow weary of seeing awkwardly officiated games.
How short-sighted everyone is! Doesn’t anyone see the genius (and dare I say, benevolence?) of Roger Goodell? The positives of the referee lockout far outweigh the negatives. Not to be bombastic, but I believe the replacement officials are the most significant development in the game of football since the invention of the forward pass.* Not to be bombastic two sentences in a row, but Goodell’s decision to use replacement referees could have more positive impact on American culture than glasnost did on Soviet culture.*
By this point, you probably wonder… “Just what in the heck is this guy talking about? This is a travesty! The NFL is making a fool of itself.” Or, you’re wondering what “bombastic” means. Or, both. Luckily, I am fully prepared to explain everything. By the time I’m done, you’ll see it my way – the National Football League is making all the right decisions, and Roger Goodell is guiding the ship masterfully.
For starters – let’s talk about fan involvement.
As broadcast coverage of games improves, including the development of the Red Zone Channel and the decreasing price of NFL Sunday Ticket, incentives to attend games are at an all-time low. Why deal with traffic, concession prices, obnoxious drunks and lousy views of the action at a stadium when you can have a bird’s-eye view of any game you want to see from the comfort of your living room?
Nowadays, the vast majority of NFL fan engagement is done electronically or as a television viewer. It’s helped create a billion dollar industry (fantasy football) and everyone knows the network TV deals are the league’s main bankroll. Still, Goodell and the owners want fans to attend games – particularly because third-party or arms-length involvement with the sport doesn’t generate a lot of revenue for the league. Owners (and Roger works for the owners, mind you) want you at the stadium, spending money on season tickets and $8 hot dogs, even though most people can’t afford to do so.
Goodell locked the referees out to get the fans involved, to make the experience more real for them. He recognized he had to think outside the box on this one, and has taken ingenious strategies to try and make this happen.
Take the example of Brian Stropolo (pictured to the right). He’s an avid Saints fan who nearly had the opportunity to realize his dream and suit up (as an official) during a New Orleans-Carolina game this past Sunday. Unfortunately, Goodell wasn’t able to keep someone in the Panthers front office from finding out about Mr. Stropolo’s membership in Who Dat Nation (it probably had something to do with the 80+ pictures of him on Facebook in Saints memorabilia) and he was removed from working the game early Sunday morning. He tried to make a man’s dream come true, and nearly succeeded – an admirable failure on his part.
One of the replacements in the Philadelphia-Baltimore game on Sunday told star running back LeSean McCoy “I need you for my fantasy team.” While they were on the field! How neat is that? Giving fantasy football players direct, face-to-face interaction with their team members is a great way to further fan interaction – especially if the fan’s got a $25 office league he’s trying to win. NFL players need pep talks from their (fantasy) owners every now and then.
Roger Goodell was also undoubtedly cognizant of the huge self-esteem boost all NFL fans would get from watching the replacement officials work. No matter how iffy you feel your job status is, you can take comfort in the fact that you’ll never have to get on a microphone in front of 70,000 people (and millions more on television) to explain just why you did the certain task a certain way. Doesn’t that make you feel better?
Lastly, the commissioner surely noticed that a study by Harvard University estimated nearly 3 million American adults can be classified as “problem” or “pathological gamblers”. He also knows that gambling can ruin families and contribute to criminal acts, depression, and suicide. In an effort to save families, he decided to make the environment around an NFL game as chaotic as possible – by putting nincompoops in charge, hopefully it will scare the gamblers off. Before, you could use reason to argue why you felt a certain team would cover the spread; nowadays, with the replacement referee wild card in play, anything goes, and gambling on the NFL becomes less and less desirable.
How about Goodell’s economic stimulus plan?
In order to become an NFL referee in the old days, one had to accumulate his own wealth independently before even being considered for the gig. The officials were all bankers, lawyers, businessmen – the logic being, if you already had enough money to live comfortably, you’d be less tempted to take bribes.
Channeling the spirit of Robin Hood, Roger Goodell shut out the rich guys and gave these poor schmucks a shot at a big league pay check. The lead official for the first game of the season (Jim Core, pictured above) is an 8th grade geography teacher from Idaho. Isn’t that adorable?!? Who wouldn’t root for a little man like that to make himself some hard-earned cash?
And another thing – television ratings won’t be affected by the poor state of officiating. Football junkies are going to watch no matter what – after sitting through a God-awful summer of baseball and the Olympics, they aren’t missing a second of the quality sports entertainment the NFL provides. In fact, the ratings might actually go up – if there’s anything Americans love more than football, it’s awkward moments and unintentional comedy.
Goodell also recognizes the importance of building the sport of football from the ground up. The more quality football that exists, the better the NFL’s product can become. That’s why he took the very worst officials out of Divisions II and III of college football, the Lingerie Football League, and the UFL – in an attempt to get the poison out of their systems so they could grow. Incredible foresight and prudence shown by Roger on this one.
Let’s not forget about nostalgia.
Admit it – you were taking Ed Hochuli for granted, weren’t you? WEREN’T YOU? How about Jeff Triplette? Mike Carey? See, you miss all those guys, right? You miss Hochuli’s giant, bulging biceps. You miss Triplette’s douchey sense of entitlement and self-importance. You miss Mike Carey’s mustache and exaggerated arm gestures.
Looks like Roger’s got you right where he wants you. All the petty complaints and quibbles we had with the standard officiating crews are forgiven and forgotten; by the time they get back, we’ll be so happy to see Walt Anderson’s weird nose and Bill Leavy’s exaggerated jowels that we’ll embrace them warmly and hope they’ll never leave us again.
It’s not as though the full-time referees are infallible, but they sure are familiar. It just doesn’t feel like football season until Hochuli stumbles through a verbose penalty explanation or Jeff Triplette drops a flag on the field just so he can hear himself talk. Again, Goodell is masterfully engineering that nostalgic longing in all of us, making us feel connected to the game in ancillary ways we’d never considered before.
What the officials’ lockout is not about.
As a result of the labor dispute, the good name of the commissioner is being dragged through the mud. People are calling him a power-hungry dictator hell-bent on ruling the league with an iron first. Some have said that his failures in carrying out the Bounty-Gate punishments (oh, those pesky court systems!) motivate him to take an even harder line with the officials in an attempt to regain his “edge”.
Sure, it may seem as though his player safety initiatives ring hollow now that he’s letting inexperienced Average Joes police the world’s most vicious and fast-paced sport. And sure, it might seem as though he’s in an elaborate game of chicken with a union whose representative body contains a higher percentage of intelligent people than the players’ union did… and the fact that he didn’t consider they’d actually call his bluff might make you chuckle a bit at his hubris.
You’ve likely concluded that the whole mess is Roger’s own doing, that he’s showing himself to be a typical type-A style of leader; that he’s pressing onward, despite obvious flaws in his plan, because to offer concessions is to show weakness, and that’s one thing he cannot do. Despite the fact that he operates the most popular sports league on this continent, with more money than they know what to do with, he’s led the NFL into an uncomfortable corner.
You might think that, and you’d be all wrong. He’s doing this for the good of the sport (and the good of all its fans)… don’t you see?!?*
BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!
*Note: Asterisks signify sarcasm. Oh, and bombastic means: “high-sounding; high-flown; inflated; pretentious.”
Actually, the word reminds me of a high-profile sports commissioner, but I can’t think of who it might be…*