What is to be expected when faced with doing “it” for the first time – for real? Sure there has been some preparation. The marathon film studying. The hours spent at home practicing alone to master technique. The past experiences that weren’t quite on the level of the step about to be taken. The simulations… those polish sessions when nothing was at stake. All this amounts to hopes and empty promises of a masterful and mutually satisfactory performance. Once it is game time, however, the stark reality of inexperience brings all that optimism crashing down. It never goes smoothly. Techniques are sloppy. Clumsy. Bumbling. Pathetic, really. There is no confidence. No intuition. No decisive action. Just an inept mess… and scabs. It quickly leaves a more experienced partner used to the standard of excellence set by a former flame wanting for more talent and expertise. (Metaphorical throat clearing of this metaphor)(Cough)(Cough). Welcome to the NFL Referee Lockout 2012.
After locking out the 120+ regular, highly trained NFL officials when their CBA expired last winter, the National Football League is already feeling the angst of its decision to use replacement referees in games that actually matter just a couple weeks into the fledgling football season. The League had hoped that the inconsistency and blatant incompetence displayed during the preseason by their motley crew of replacement officials would not carry over into regular season play. However, judging by the array of game altering gaffes from Week One, the NFL is delusional to think that these inexperienced scabs will not end up jeopardizing the integrity of the season if used over the course of the full sixteen game schedule.
So far, the NFL has been lucky that the replacement officials have not made a mistake so egregious that it cost a team a game. It has been close though. The League narrowly avoided an officiating disaster of potentially epic, playoff-implicating proportions when the Arizona Cardinals managed to keep the division rival Seattle Seahawks out of the end zone in the waning seconds of their Week One matchup to hold on for a 20 – 16 win. The replacements refs had awarded Seattle an extra timeout during the Seahawks’ final and potentially game-winning drive deep inside the Cardinal red zone. While the League and the replacement refs acknowledged the mistake after the game, what would have happened if the Cardinals lost that game due to the timeout mishap? Remember, Arizona and Seattle finished last season tied in the NFC West with an 8-8 record, both one game out of the playoff hunt. If the teams were to finish this season tied again, and were both vying for the final playoff position, the tiebreaker would go to the team with the best divisional record. If they were still tied, then the team who came out best in their head-to-head matchups would take the last spot. If the Cardinals had lost last Sunday due to the ineptitude of replacement officials, would the NFL have provided them a remedy?
Historically, the NFL has never taken action outside of an apology to remedy a loss sustained by a team due to officiating errors. Not that there haven’t been many controversial games in which the NFL could have done so. One recent example, a September matchup between the Chargers and Broncos during the 2008 season, featured a blown fumble call by high profile referee Ed Hochuli that enabled the Broncos to steal a victory in the final minute of the game. While the NFL downgraded Hochuli’s official ranking, nothing could be done to change the outcome of the game. However, in light of the NFL and its owners choosing to use inexperienced replacements rather than negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the locked out union referees, might a team robbed of a win have a stronger case for a remedy?
The NFL could willingly follow the lead of the NBA, which has sent teams back to the court to replay portions of protested games four times in league history. Most recently, the NBA ordered the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat to replay the final 51.9 seconds of a game after officials mistakenly fouled former Heat center Shaquille O’Neal out the game. In actuality, O’Neal was only supposed to have five fouls, which would have allowed him to continue playing. The Hawks won the disputed game that was waived off due to the protest. Prior to the next meeting between the two teams, they replayed the final 51.9 seconds. Again, the Hawks managed to hold off the Heat in overtime.
If the NFL proved unwilling to uphold a protest and provide a remedy to a wronged NFL team in a way similar to how the NBA has done in the past, perhaps the dispute could be settled in some sort of arbitration hearing. Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL owners have long cited the “best interest of the game” clause found within the NFL’s charter as the source of its discretionary power to not overturn wrongfully decided games, or to levy suspensions and/or hefty fines when players break rules or engage in conduct prohibited by league policy. This clause has generally been bulletproof until recently when the four Saints players involved in the pay-for-pain bounty scandal had their suspensions overturned by a three-member appeals panel. While this doesn’t necessarily indicate that a team who had been cheated out of a win and perhaps lost out on revenue as a result of a replacement referees blunder might also bring a challenge against the League and emerge victorious, it does present the possibility that if a rogue owner in the mold of the late Al Davis decided to go against the majority and fight it out, the “best of interest of the league” clause might not be so impenetrable anymore. Until the replacement officials make the kind of mistake that could incite such a reaction, this all just a game of “what ifs.”