The Replacement Distraction

The NFL's officiating crisis is a problem. It's also a terrible diversion from more pressing matters.
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A walking zebra-striped distraction

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Back in the middle of the George W. Bush administration, when most liberal outrage concerned unlawful wars and obscene tax cuts—totally different from now—my similarly pinko friends and I complained that we were wasting our time. Not in the sense that Dubya’s policies weren’t worth railing against, of course, because they were and remain so as peddled by different politicians of both major parties. Instead, we felt as if our substantive discussions should have been about the plight of the poor, or the rapidly deteriorating environment, or a necessary extension of rights to the LGBT community. Anything else was a distraction from the march of progress, a recapitulation of past issues that did a disservice to more clear and present dangers. When the nation elected Barack Obama in 2008, our prevailing emotion was not joy but relief, a sense that now we could finally get back to the important stuff we should have dealt with over the preceding eight years.

A sports league—even one as big as the NFL, with its own decider in Roger Goodell—will never hold as much power as the largest government in the world. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this past Sunday, as I watched the league’s late-afternoon games amidst a flurry of Twitter uproar regarding the shoddy performance of various replacement officials (read: scabs), that my first point of comparison was those dark years in the mid-aughts. Because, just a few months removed from Cassandraic, valid warnings about whether or not the NFL can continue as a league with its current production level of violent, life-altering brain damage, we’re now spending most of our time arguing about when we can bring back the less terrible officials we also hate.

That’s not to say that this argument isn’t worth making. These hopefully temporary officials have made myriad mistakes ranging from the unforgivable—giving a team an extra timeout, disallowing key touchdowns due to evidence only they can see, etc.—to the hilarious and embarrassing—regularly assigning penalties to nonexistent players, copious errors in spotting the ball, etc. It’s a bad look for a league that claims and holds authority over the American sporting landscape; an organization with a self-mythologizing air of seriousness now looks pathetic and incapable of consistently enforcing its basic rules of competition. Oh, and the NFL also seems to have done little-to-no vetting when assigning officials to games for which they might have serious conflicts of interest.

Fans are upset, duh, for all the obvious reasons and also the sense that they’re being condescended to by league brass who, as Steve Young argued on SportsCenter following Monday’s Broncos/Falcons game, assume the audience will consume any shoddy product with no dip in ratings or interest. Goodell and the owners he represents have so far been correct in that estimation, which speaks to their success in building a popular product and their backwards sense of what they owe their audience. (Never mind their treatment of the locked-out officials themselves, who have been vilified as the intransigent party despite a perfectly reasonable belief in their own worth.)

On the other hand, these same fans will still boo and lament the bad calls of the familiar officials if and when they return. At a basic level, most sports fans are unable to appreciate quality officiating, both because stable frameworks for competition are merely settings for greatness and because a favorite team’s losses are often read as injustices. However, both desiring the return of the NFL’s professional officials and likely telling them to fuck off when they make bad calls is not an example of hypocrisy. In its own weird way, that apparent contradiction exemplifies a noble hope that the system can become more just, that preferring one shitty situation to a worse one doesn’t preclude people from looking for something better. No self-respecting liberals thought the job done when President Obama took office—we complained about new things, tried to right different wrongs, and (somewhat misguidedly) assumed that the arguments of the Bush administration were a thing of the past. The anger towards Goodell doesn’t only stem from the fact that his union-busting has made the NFL less watchable—it’s that he’s trying to extract unnecessary concessions from a group that long ago proved itself an integral part of the NFL experience. The strategy is equal parts myopic and offensive, the mark of a man more concerned with shareholder profits than credibility.

The impasse is largely indicative of the worst tendencies of the most corporate league in America. More than its counterparts across the sporting spectrum, the NFL exists as top-down, employer-driven organization where employees are interchangeable and solutions depend on what can be negotiated rather than what is sensible. Arguing about the replacement referee fiasco can then function as a referendum on NFL business practices writ large, from non-guaranteed contracts to the progressive lengthening of games via longer ad breaks and more frequent stoppages in play. Within that calculus, this outcry isn’t a distraction at all, but an example of what can make the NFL a particularly frustrating league to follow.

The problem with that point of view is that the league has proven very capable of turning potential crises into fodder for their narrative machine. Distractions, in whatever form, have a great history of being presented as substantive NFL content. Tebowmania, for instance, dominated storylines (and continues to, to a lesser extent) despite its reliance on mythmaking over the observable on-field product. The NFL often thrives off these distractions, helping it become something more like a self-sustaining cultural force rather than a typical sports league. In that context—and certainly for Goodell, if only in part—the replacement official arguments can become net positives as long as they eventually go away.

That exploitation of the news cycle, ultimately, is what makes this story such an impediment to serious discussion about the state of the NFL. Because while Goodell’s high-handed approach to labor negotiations speaks to his (and by extension the league’s) fundamentally aggravating style, it’s also a temporary story. The more we discuss it, or point to it as the primary issue facing the NFL, the more likely we are to change the parameters of football discourse for the foreseeable future. Other, more serious problems, like the widely publicized head trauma crisis that legitimately calls the NFL’s very being into question, are not going away. And as we learned after George W. Bush left office, arguing over a bunch of seemingly obvious crap for long periods of time shifts the terms of debate for far longer. The referee issue is real and worthy of our time. But recognizing the proper priorities could determine whether or not the NFL itself remains feasible for the foreseeable future.

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