Better late…

Life (fatherhood, husbandhood, job…) has kept me from this blog.  So I’ve been silent on the NFL officials’ lockout.  But, after my Pacific Northwest neighbors totally blew up on Facebook tonight, I can’t ignore it anymore.  Here’s my take:

This lockout may be among the greatest things ever to happen to officials.

The nadir for officials’ public image was 2005/6.  The ridiculous responses to Super Bowl XL, Doug Eddings’ call in the 2005 ALCS, Fox going bonkers in the 2005 World Series, and trouble in the 2006 World Cup were bad. Then came Tim Donaghy. Officials have never had it worse than about six years ago.

Two important occurrences since then have caused a significant improvement in respect shown to officials.  The wonderful response to Jim Joyce’s blown call in the Armando Galarraga game was one.  Far more impactful, however, was the hiring of Mike Pereira by Fox.  I’d been begging for a network to hire someone (or a league to make someone available) for years, and then it happened.

Immediately, what transpired was a shift:  an assumption (well, maybe a glimmer in the back of the mind) that fans and sportscasters might not be the ones to go to for information on the rules and on what officials have said and seen.

Turning to an expert is what smart people do.  Declaring one’s self an expert is what stupid people do.  When it came to officiating, Fox Sports made the shift from stupid to smart when it hired Pereira, and it dragged its sensible fans along with them.

(As an aside, I came to this conclusion tonight: there would be little-to-no Super Bowl XL officiating controversy if there had been a Pereira in the booth that day.)

Even with these critical positive changes (and ESPN following suit, hiring Gerald Austin for its NFL coverage and also a college football and baseball official whose name I forget right now), I was fearful for the result of the NFL lockout.

Here’s why.

When there’s any work action that involves replacement workers, the original workers (whether they’re striking or locked out) have one hope and only one hope.  They have to bank on people noticing a change in their quality of life enough to demand the original workers back.  It doesn’t  matter whether it’s garbage collectors, teachers, or anything else.  The only way the original workers win is for the public to miss them.

In 2001, when NFL officials struck, they missed one game.  Not too much happened in that week 1.  Then, 9/11 happened, and officials, perhaps fearing public scorn if they continued to strike in the midst of national tragedy, returned.

In 2006, when minor league umpires went on strike, I feared that nobody would care about the difference in officiating quality.  Even though some major league teams stopped tracking balls and strikes for their prospects (because the plate umpires were that inconsistent…I can’t find a link to show this, however).  However, spectators at a minor league game didn’t notice, and MiLB umpires went back to work with minimal gains to show for their hardship.

The issue is this:  how can you get a public on your side when their wildly misguided default assumption is that you are incompetent?

For this reason, I feared for the NFLRA.

Three weeks in, it’s clear that my fears were unfounded.  The replacement officiating has been so intensely bad that fans, players, coaches, and media actually miss the regular guys.  I can’t believe that the result of this lockout is more ref love.

Additionally, it’s not just angry fans and sports announcers looking to create a story this time.  The fans and the media are now turning to experts to confirm what they’re seeing is bad, and they’re getting that confirmation.

This video of Mike Tirico interviewing Gerry Austin is exactly what was needed.  (In it, I learn that simultaneous possession is not a reviewable call.  I didn’t know that, and neither did you–and for this reason alone, we are all better off with the Pereiras and Austins of the world.)  I love that he discusses the call, discusses the mechanics (what should happen when two officials who disagree on a call come together?  did it happen here?  should the white hat get involved?), and provides expertise.  Light rather than heat.  Of course, in this case, the light went through some eyeglasses to start a fire, but Austin’s words matter here.  They make us miss the real guys, and give us evidence as to why.

As for the replacement officials who made the call in Seattle:  as always, my first reaction to an official after an actual or a perceived  miss is one of empathy.  There but for the grace of God go any of us.  These guys are clearly in over their head.  It reminds me of the drowning feeling I had in my first varsity game back in 1998.  I was not ready, my partner was not ready, but we were shorthanded, and so there I was, muddling along.

And yet…yet…

They were CHOOSING to be there.  If I were offered a Division I college game tomorrow, men’s or women’s, and offered the pretty fat paycheck that came with it, I would decline.  I do not want to be in a position I’m not ready for.  I do not want to screw over the participants and the coaches who have so much on the line.  I do not want to have to rely on a babysitter on the sideline to teach me rules that exist in college that do not exist in high school.  I do not want to watch players do things I’ve never seen players do at a pace I’ve never seen players reach and be expected to correctly call a game while those headlights meet my fawn-eyes.

So,  unlike many, I do hold the scab officials at least partially responsible.  I get that times are hard–but none of these guys is exclusively a ref for a living (nobody does that in football), so I highly doubt they needed the work to feed their families.  They made a choice to attempt something they should have fully known they weren’t up to doing, and they face the consequences.  I do feel empathy for the missed call, but as for the stakes and the stage of that missed call–that was very much their own doing.

What’s next for the NFLRA?  I find it just about impossible to imagine Roger Goodell won’t give the refs everything he possibly can to end what is a public relations fiasco–this week, even.  And then the NFL refs will return.  There will be standing ovations at all stadiums when they are introduced.  They will be shown love because they are–much to my surprise and delight–missed.

At some point, there will be the first terrible, game-shifting mistake.  Pereira, Austin, or whoever replaces them will say “This was a regrettable error.”  The NFL will apologize.

There will be the predictable shitstorm, the typical anger.

But in the midst of that–way, way at the back of the mind of every fan who has endured the officiating of the last few weeks–there will be the indisputable knowledge that, mistake or no, the officials on the field are the best in the world at what they do, just like the players.

I don’t think fans knew that before this week, and possibly even before Golden Tate scored his touchdown with one forearm tonight.  But they do now, and I think this experience has burned that fact into their psyches for at least another decade.

If I’m right about that–and I think I am–this lockout will be another wonderful advance in the public’s perception of officials and officiating.  That’s unqualified good news.