NFL Referees (Replacement or Otherwise) Are People Too

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NFL Referees (Replacement or Otherwise) Are People Too
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Jim Harbaugh makes his presence known to the officials.

Did anyone else see the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers game during NFL kickoff weekend?  If so, maybe you got hit by some of the spittle from coach Jim Harbaugh's foaming mouth.

In the era of 3D television, your mind may have at least thought you did; involuntarily making you reach for a towel. 

Did Harbaugh receive a message on the sideline that the referee he was yelling at ran over his family dog?  Or was that simply Harbaugh's reaction towards a penalty he disagreed with?

I have to believe it's the former, if only because I can't imagine a working situation whereby a person is subjected to abuse like that for such a subjective and frivolous reason.  

I'm not sure about other fans, but Harbaugh's rant really struck me.  Like the spit actually traveled from California and splattered on my face in the Midwest.  There has to be something wrong with a sport when an enraged blow-up like that isn't penalized.

Is that exchange supposed to be par for the course regarding on-field dialogues between coaches and officials in the NFL?  If so, I may have to adopt Harbaugh's methodology the next time my shirts come back from the cleaners with too much starch.  

Shortly after Harbaugh's rant, I was trying to imagine myself as the referee (okay, replacement referee) returning home after the game:

     Referee:  "Hey guys, I'm home!"

     Family:  "How was work?"

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     Referee:  "I got spit on six times today.  Pretty good day at the office."  

If the regular NFL referees saw Jim Harbaugh's tirade against that replacement referee during the Packers 49ers game, I can only imagine they are more entrenched than ever to see their demands met before returning to work.  

Or if they missed that game, maybe they saw the Baltimore Ravens play against the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football during week 3.  Seemingly enraged by something as time expired, Bill Belichick actually ran after and physically grabbed a replacement official as he exited the field.  

If this demonstration doesn't tell you the behavioral boundaries between coaches and officials needs to be drawn more clearly, I'm not sure what would.  

Even if these coaches are correct, and the performance of the replacement referees is below average, it's hardly appropriate to blame the replacement referees themselves.  They were hired as substitutes by the NFL and are doing the absolute best job they can.   

The fact is, this was a problem well before the 2012 season.  It's just been more starkly revealed by the current environment where every action of the replacement officials is put under a microscope.  And given the various abuses football referees absorb at work, maybe their demands are actually on the conservative side.  

Throw in the fact that there's quite a bit of negative media attention surrounding the replacements and it's starting to look like the regulars are a lock to succeed in their negotiations.  I wonder what the current odds are in Vegas that the referees win?  After Sunday, I'm guessing they are improving.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Coaches may decide to soften their approach towards officials when Ed Hochuli returns to the NFL.

Witnessing Harbaugh's tirade and Belichick chasing an official off the field makes me think the NFL should adopt some more stringent and consistently enforced rules for dealing with football coaches that cross the line of decency and respect during football games.  Like the technical foul often given to coaches in the NBA.  Or the outright ejection of a coach as often seen in MLB.  

I don't think a head coach has ever been ejected from an NFL game, at least not recently.  Offhand, I can't think of a single occurrence, despite numerous situations that seemed to demand it.  Referees can issue unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties to coaches, but these occur rarely.     

In an era of anti-bully campaigns and putting muzzles on overzealous parents at youth sporting events, it seems like a titanic contradiction to allow football coaches to go berserk without a clear and consistently enforced system of rules and associated penalties that address these issues.  

The NFL rulebook may in fact include detailed guidance; I'm not sure, because I haven't read it.  But if it does, than something has surely been lost in translation between the intent of these rules and their actual enforcement.  

The worldwide popularity of the NFL is well known.  Should the ridiculous and often memorable behavior of some coaches blowing their tops without fear of penalty be a message the NFL wants to promote both at home and abroad?  I doubt Roger Goodell thinks so.   

Referees partake in sporting events to maintain the spirit of the sport through enforcement of the rules. These are subjective assessments of real-time events.

Although the installment of instant replay has helped to ensure the rules are enforced correctly, there is a huge element left to personal interpretation.  

Any team will be biased towards an outcome that benefits their efforts, such as Jim Harbaugh against the Packers.  It's up to the referee to make a neutral assessment.   And they are human.  Mistakes will be made.  

But at the end of the day, these are games.  The best team doesn't always win and the outcome can never be blamed on officiating alone; there are a lot more factors at work than just the referees. 

If football coaches want to motivate their teams with passionate and spirited personal body language on the sideline, that is certainly acceptable.  Encouraged even.  But not at the expense of a referee's right to humane treatment.

In what other job should one expect to wipe spit off their face routinely during the execution of their regular duties?  At least without the threat of a serious penalty to the offender?  I personally cannot imagine a situation such as this in my own professional life.  And I don't consider it acceptable working conditions for any human being.  

It seems that many NFL fans are frustrated with the replacement referees.   Maybe, just maybe, the regular NFL referees have a point.  How much money would it take for you to get spit on with no outlet for recompense?  

Either increase the referees' compensation for taking such abuse, or adjust the rules so this type of behavior results in appropriate consequences.  Given the example we are trying to set for young people both at home and abroad, I'm guessing the ideal solution is a combination of both.

Human decency demands it.  

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