Monday night’s big NFL game between the Packers and the Seahawks drove a stake through the heart of anyone still trying to pretend that a group of third-tier referees could officiate a sport that involves guys the size of appliances who move like gazelles.
One ref signals one call, the other signals something entirely different, and the fans see a fiercely contested match-up decided, wrongly, by the guys in zebra stripes.
If you’re new to the whole mess, these replacement refs have been brought in because of a hardball labor dispute. And after this week’s debacle, ESPN concluded that the back-up officials are “hurting the NFL.”
In this clip, from NPR, you’ll hear color commentators at Monday night’s game worrying about the health of the sport’s brand. That’s creepy.
The real worry here should be the health and welfare of the athletes. If modern NFL players run like gazelles, they hit like wrecking balls.
This is a sport that faced close scrutiny before the season began, due to increasingly horrific research into the ravages of concussions and other head trauma.
Hundreds of former players are already involved in a class-action suit, accusing the league’s owners and official of “deceit and deception” in their handling of brain injury on the field.
This is dangerous stuff. Even with highly trained, experienced referees on the field, preventing devastating injury or death is a high-wire act, a constant negotiation between the violence of America’s most popular sport and the whistle-thin veneer of rules and officiating.
Now that the high school and junior college referees are managing the grid-iron, it’s easy to see things spiraling out of control.
The fact that the NFL is holding a season at all under these conditions shows the level of contempt the league feels for players. Can you imagine NASCAR asking drivers to hit the track without proper safety precautions? No way.
Even mixed martial arts — which, by the way, has a better safety record than the NFL — would balk at throwing fighters into the ring without giving athletes the protection of proper officiating.
So it’s a good thing that right now people are carping about games being lost and the brand being damaged. In the days ahead, we could be talking instead about young men being paralyzed, or killed, or their careers shattered by avoidable injuries.
Frankly, when it comes to caring for athletes, the NFL already operates in an ethical gray zone that is shading ever darker as new research about mental health emerges.
To pull back from the brink, the league should make the safe choice for players: Put experienced refs back on the field, or call off the season until the labor dispute is over.
The time to make that call is now, not after we see an athlete carted off the field on a covered stretcher.