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STEVE DeSHAZO: Congress may need to step in
AFTER REVIEW, NFL HAS AN OFFICIAL MESS ON ITS HANDS
LET’S START WITH the premise that Green Bay’s M.D. Jennings could have avoided this whole brouhaha by simply knocking down Seattle’s last-ditch pass attempt late Monday night instead of trying to intercept it.
That would have been the smart football play. But little about the NFL this season could be described as intelligent—most notably the escalating travesty involving locked-out officials and their unqualified replacements.
Because it cost the Packers a game they deserved to win, Monday night’s finish could turn into a tipping point. A nationally televised, blatantly botched call should provide the impetus for league owners to make some concessions and bring back the regular refs.
But don’t count on it.
You’ve probably seen the play in question more times than any political attack ad by now. Williams clearly intercepted Russell Wilson’s Hail Mary pass. Golden Tate blatantly pushed a Packer defender, then got one hand on the ball—and was rewarded with a touchdown by a former Division III official who overruled a colleague ready to call a touchback. Even after consulting replay, the scabs got it wrong.
Reaction, as usual, was swift: angry, profane tweets from players. Ridicule from analysts. Outrage from fans everywhere outside the Pacific Northwest. ESPN reported 70,000 voice mails were left overnight at the NFL office.
The league, though, was nearly too busy counting its money to react. It eventually issued a weak statement supporting the scabs’ ruling.
“There is broad agreement that the quality and consistency of officiating can and should be improved. How to accomplish that is a critical issue separating the two sides in this negotiation,” read the statement, which would have made Karl Rove or James Carville proud.
In other words, don’t hold your breath.
There’s no such thing as bad publicity, according to the old saying. And even though fans are mocking the NFL, they haven’t stopped (and won’t stop) tuning in and showing up.
It’s clear that the replacements—culled from third-tier college leagues—are unprepared for the NFL’s speed and complexity. It’s like going straight from karaoke night to Carnegie Hall.
Many replacements don’t know all the NFL rules, as flustered, soon-to-be-poorer coaches like Bill Belichick and Kyle Shanahan painfully discovered. And even when they do, they’ve marked off penalties erroneously. (Of course, Ed Hochuli can attest that even the pros don’t always get it right.)
The larger issue is that players and coaches have quickly lost whatever shred of respect they had for the scabs. ESPN’s Mike Tirico aptly quipped that they’re being treated “like substitute teachers.” Even worse, play has gotten chippier and more dangerous as players lose fear of punishment.
Is the uproar enough to send the owners racing to the negotiating table, ready to accede to the officials’ pension demands?
C’mon. This is a league that staged three weeks of games with replacement players in 1987—until the rank and file caved and returned to work. Owners were prepared to do the same last year before a new collective bargaining agreement was reached.
Judging by the recent past, anger alone will not force a resolution. NFL owners are wrong, but it will take one of two things for them to capitulate: a lawsuit or congressional action.
Congress has much bigger issues to address (an election, the debt limit and the Middle East, for three). But it’s easier (and more popular) for elected officials to stick their noses into popular issues like NFL officiating. (Sports might never have addressed steroid use seriously if George W. Bush hadn’t mentioned it in a State of the Union address.)
Getting the regular zebras back may suddenly become a hot bipartisan issue for Wisconsin’s elected officials. It may even end up on Paul Ryan’s debate agenda if it isn’t solved by then.
And New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney reportedly said Tuesday he plans to introduce a bill banning professional sports events in New Jersey if they are officiated by fill-ins.
We know that Roger Goodell, a lawyer, understands the power of the courts. The NFL didn’t get serious about player safety or benefits for retirees until it became the plaintiff in dozens of lawsuits.
Short of one of those developments, fans may have to grimace and bear it, because there’s no resolution in sight. Unlike Williams, the NFL keeps dropping the ball on this one.
Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443