NFL Replacement Referees, Roger Goodell and the Myth of Sports Fans' Power

Brandon K. SmithContributor IIISeptember 25, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell participates in a news briefing after his meeting with U.S. Senate Majority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) June 20, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Goodell was on the Hill to discuss bounties in professional sports.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Alex Wong/Getty Images

To quote Ron Burgundy, “That escalated quickly!”  This in reference to the increasingly louder complaints by coaches, players, pundits and fans alike after last night’s “catch” by Golden Tate resulted in a victory for his Seattle Seahawks—one that undoubtedly should have been claimed by the opposing Green Bay Packers.

Now, I’ll do my best to not beat a dead horse as by now pretty much everyone in the sporting community (or anyone with access to ESPN, at least) has seen the egregious error in judgment by the referees in last night’s Seahawks-Packers bout in not giving Green Bay’s defensive back M.D. Jennings an interception as time expired.  Such a pick would have given the Pack their second win of the season.  Instead, one official called time (signaling an interception—the right call) and another signaled touchdown for the Seahawks’ Tate, who had about as much grip on the ball as I do our county’s fiscal policy.  

The play went to review, was not overturned and the wrong team won the game.

The call has been replayed a zillion times, so many times, in fact, that a zillion may as well be dubbed as a real number just to describe how many replay showings have occurred of this particular play.

With the replay has come even more critical reviews of the NFL's replacement refs and even more flak to the NFL for not resolving their issues with the NFL Referees Association as the two sides continue to negotiate.

Even the most casual NFL fan has become familiar with the league’s replacement refs.  This clan of zebra’s generally operate with an aw-shucks aura, are taking time off from jobs like teaching and loom weaving (I assume), and have had a difficult time not only making the right call on field, but also keeping players and coaches in check.  Coverage of this has not been scarce, and it wouldn't be a shot in the dark to think more gaffed calls like Monday's will continue to occur.

Worse, it doesn’t even appear like that terrible call—which cost a team a game in a wildly competitive league where playoff berths (and with those, jobs) are often dictated by just a game if even that—will have a great effect on how soon the negotiations wrap up.  Essentially, King—err, I mean, Commissioner—Goodell can wait as long as he wants resolving the referee problems.

You would think—or, at least, like to think—that a call as heinous and decisively important to the potential integrity of a season as Monday’s was would have the NFL not only immediately figuring out their complicated stance with the real refs, but standing outside their house with a boom box blaring Player’s, “Baby Come Back.”

But it doesn’t, and bad calls like that never will settle their dispute.

This is because the NFL doesn’t need to do that.  As Steve Young of ESPN has so aptly put it over a week ago, “There is nothing they can do to hurt the demand for the game.  The bottom line is: they don’t care.”

At this point, this can be looked at as simply the reality of the situation as it pertains to player safety, the quality of the product being produced and the fans.

That last factor, the fans, is the reason this truth can exist.  To expand on Young's thoughts, people will continue to watch the games, buy the gear and give the NFL their money no matter how horrific the referees perform this year.  The NFL knows this better than anybody, and knows that they have at least this season to reap the rewards of a grace period offered by the fans because their adoration of the game and their teams, if nothing else. 

Who knows, by next season, the replacement refs could be better; maybe not to the standard of the real refs, but a year after that?  In four seasons?  Five?  Who’s to say the NFL’s replacement referees would not be as good as those currently battling the NFL by that point?

Obviously, that’s a pretty grand dramatization and I don’t think anyone expects that to happen.  But what if it did?  How long would NFL fans wait for the quality preciseness the game requires to return to normal?  Chances are we’ll keep going back for more and more football regardless.

Often times, players, coaches, general managers, owners—you name it—insist to the public that the fans are what drive the success of their respective franchises.  In simple terms, this is true.  The fans buy the tickets, purchase the jerseys, watch the games on TV to drive advertising sales and so on, all of which bring in revenue for the teams, and eventually their respective leagues, as a whole.

So, clearly, teams and leagues cannot make money without enough fan support.

But how much do these organizations and leagues really care about the fans, aside from the cash flow they provide?  With that, how much power do we as fans actually possess in today’s day and age?

The NHL is facing their fourth work stoppage in the last two decades and possibly its second full-season lockout since the cancelled 2004-05 campaign, even though I’m sure hockey fans will still be chomping at the bit for round puck when it comes back.  Yes, the league experienced a backslide in popularity after the first lockout, but came back stronger each year since and has crawled out from being lost on the Versus Network to showing games nationally on NBC in its most recent seasons.

The NBA saw a season shortened by a lockout produce some of its most popular Finals ever and the league continues to increase its popularity steadily as Lebron James slowly takes over “Beats by Dre” commercials and consequentially, the world.

Major League Baseball continually has an issue with deciding whether or not some of its greatest players of all-time should be inducted into its Hall of Fame because of blatant cheating, cancelled a World Series less than twenty years ago, and baseball teams all but technically out of the playoff hunt continue to sell-out home games (see: Philadelphia Phillies).

So, do we have the control we really think we do as fans?  It’s tough to tell.  The aforementioned leagues are less stable financially in general than the NFL, which begs the question: is the NFL too big to fail?  At this juncture, it appears so, sadly enough.

This means that we, as fans, simply don’t have the power we may think we have.  This is especially true in modern times, what with fantasy sports, the overflow of ESPN channels we get in basic cable packages, among other aspects, all leading to the fact that sports are more profitable than they’ve ever been.  We simply can’t get enough of them.

If the NFL brought out the referee quality seen this season in 1970, they may be in dire straits for a little while.  But today?  No chance.  Whether we like or not, we’re sports junkies, and the only thing that will get us our fix is more action from the fields, courts and rinks.

What we are now witnessing are well-oiled companies, not sports teams, operating at a remarkably high level on a business scale.  They are money making machines, and as long as they know people will wake up the next day and still love sports, they will do whatever possible for their own bottom line, even if this means brief detriment to the quality of the product they produce.

It’s simple economics:  supply and demand.  If the demand doesn’t change for a weaker product and shows no signs of doing so, what’s the motivation to improve by suppliers?

It seems almost all we can give in today’s “golden age” of sports is teams and leagues our trust that they will look out for some of our best interests as fans, given we are the plebeians that harvest the goods that make their big machine go.

But they know if one of us goes, another can and will take our place.

This is why it hurts even more when a league like the NFL openly disobeys that trust, as they have, to boost their bottom line bit by bit.  It’s a slap in the face to us, the fans.  The system of how we take in sports has gotten so intricate and complex and our interest in them so profound, we’ve established an environment where a league with the NFL’s popularity seemingly has no possibility of failing.  (Unless it comes from, gasp, concussions.) 

Unfortunately, it seems all we have as fans is a Hail Mary of hope and misplaced trust.  We can only hope it goes smoother than the one in Seattle and the right call is made.