Refpocalypse 2012September 27, 2012
by: Aaron Stern
The NFL announced this morning that they’ve reached a deal with the league’s referees – the real referees, not the juco and Pop Warner weekend warriors who have barely held the line these first three weeks of the 2012-2013 NFL season – to put them back to work.
I, for one, am not that excited and that’s because I, for one, never thought it was the human rights travesty that the rest of America did.
On Tuesday’s B.S. Report, Michael Lombardi started wading into Refpocalypse and it seemed for a moment as if he was going to put the whole NFL replacement referee fiasco into some sort of badly needed perspective – more of a perspective than it’s had these last few weeks where it’s dominated Facbook, Twitter and been treated by national news outlets with as much priority as the upcoming election.
“I think we’re really missing the point,” Lombardi said. I perked up. “What’s really missing in this thing—” that’s where I got excited, “—is institutional control.”
That’s where I hung my head.
More institutional control is precisely what is not needed in today’s NFL (except for when it comes to protecting the safety of players and doing what little can be done to prevent traumatic brain injuries). The NFL has been called the “No Fun League” for many years now precisely because it has become so buttoned down and so self-serious that it’s easy to forget that it’s merely the governing body of a game.
Not to get all Jim Mora/A.I. here, but that’s the perspective we missed during Refgate: Football, even when played by professionals, is a game. A game – that’s it. A GAME. And when people play games, calls get missed, things that shouldn’t happen do happen and the final score quantifies the cumulative result of 60 minutes worth of happenings, both measurable and immeasurable.
Yes, nobody likes to seen badly blown calls by referees. And nobody likes to feel like players’ best efforts can be erased by a bunch of bumbling idiots who don’t understand the very rules they’re trying to enforce.
But Refpocalypse introduced a more human, unpredictable element to a game that is becoming increasingly clinical (and yet increasingly violent). What is by design a messy battle between 22 men on a grass field is constantly being refined and sanitized and distilled into something that will eventually look like Tron. Yes, we could put lasers on top of goal posts to determine if a field goal is good and along sidelines to determine if a player has stepped out of bounds; we could also add 100 more cameras and use a computer algorithm to make every officiating call and then we could just replace human players with cyborgs who play the game perfectly and eliminate the need for officials altogether.
And so these last few weeks were a pleasant reminder that football – the NFL – is just a game. Even what was, at times, borderline lawlessness was exciting – who didn’t like watching refs quake in their little track suits as coaches balled them out? And for a football purist, I didn’t mind watching receivers get grabbed beyond five yards without flags flying (the phantom makeup calls weren’t as fun to watch), and I liked the maddening unpredictability when refs marked off the wrong distances on penalties or allowed too many timeouts or gave coaches extra challenges. The whole thing seemed a lot like the scrappy, unruly league from the 1970s that I’ve only read about.
So while I’m happy to see the fading Hercules, aging Ed Hochuli, and all his colleagues come back to work, I’ll miss the replacements. Because something about those guys seemed a hell of a lot more fun.