Howl: Refs, Transparency and The Modern Fan

 On Tuesday morning, gentle readers, just hours after what’s now being called “The Inaccurate Reception” by NFL fans across the country, I heard Stuart Scott on the radio.  Scott had been on the field as part of the Seahawks/Packers pregame show.  Scott’s not really a reporter, BOOYAs aside, but was in good position to comment on the biggest sports story of the year.  To me the most interesting note from Scott  was this: in his experience the regular referees will talk to the media and other stadium folks they come into contact with before a game.  Scott noted that the replacement refs didn’t make eye contact with anyone, media or otherwise.  Pariahs before the games even began, it was as if these folks knew they were outclassed and did not belong.

 Less than 48 hours later, the refs had a new deal in place with the league, a deal close enough to completion that the lockout was lifted and the NFL’s “real” refs worked Thursday night’s Baltimore/Cleveland game.  The best thing that could be said about their performance is that, other than a standing ovation before the game welcoming them back, they faded into the background.  At the end of the day the referees should not be any more noticeable than the goalposts or chalklines on the field.  Better: refs should be like weather conditions in a stadium: good, bad or indifferent, they need to be constant for both teams.

 But most notable about the situation was how quickly it was resolved.  Yes, the NFL was stubborn over the past months in its negotiating…  I could exhaust you with the details, but it’s self-evident: the path to the solution was right there, and the consequences for not following said path were so obvious that the “Inaccurate Reception,” when it happened, almost felt preordained.  The media firestorm afterwards certainly was – the reaction to that play was scripted by the three prior weeks of ineptitude and shaky calls by the scab referees.  We knew a deal had to be done, as did the media, as did the NFL evidently (how else could months of negotiations be settled in 48 hours if they didn’t know where the issues truly were?)

 Remember, the whole crux of the NFL/referee conflict revolved around pension plans, a byproduct of making the referees (or at least some of them) full-time employees.  This was an idea first floated on blogs and sports talk radio a year or two ago… perhaps the refs would not suck so much if their main job was refereeing ?  Ironically in the course of trying to improve their product the NFL nearly destroyed it, lowering the league from its preferred sphere of comparison (players = warriors, soldiers, gladiators) into the realm of professional wrestling.  But again, the NFL was saved by popular opinion.  Sure it took a Monday night game involving a team with a national fan base in the Packers, but we saw it coming, and rightly howled when the Packers got jobbed.

 Coincidentally, the NBA yesterday also announced their official measures against flopping for the 2012/13 season.  Also a response to popular notions about their league, the NBA is adapting its rules to make it harder on players who intentionally deceive the refs.  Although this change won’t help in-game (the proposal is for fines for floppers after a video review of the completed game), it should help improve the quality of the product.  And again, and idea that’s been out there for awhile, suggested by the blogosphere, amplified by the NBA’s national announcers (especially the excellent and handsome Jeff Van Gundy) and finally brought to fruition by the NBA’s decision makers.

 It’s a brave new world, sports fans.  For better or for worse – or perhaps merely as proof that we really are all one mind in today’s 24 x 7, hardwired Twitterverse – we are every bit as smart as the people who run the sports we love.  We can see what they see, feel what they feel with a degree of transparency that could only imagined a decade ago.  If only we followed our political candidates with the same verve and passion… but that’s another column.


Mike Lipetzky is on Facebook and Twitter, and so is influencing your thought process is subtle ways even as you read these lines.

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