After winning a game against the National Football League’s New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco remarked that questionable calls by replacement referees had affected the “integrity of the game.” Since the start of the NFL season, a number of commentators questioned the competency of these substitute referees, and the matter came to a head during a Monday night game in Seattle when a disputed last minute catch by Seahawks’ wide receiver Golden Tate resulted in a win over the favored Green Bay Packers.
A referee invoked the “simultaneous possession” rule — which anyone familiar with the game of football is aware of whether in high school, college, or the pros — and awarded a touchdown to the offensive player, who had his hands on the ball and was lying on the ground in the end zone.
Commentators for the game, who were seated in a press box at least 50 yards away from the play and were probably relying on television monitors, decided that a defender had “clearly” intercepted the ball since it appeared he touched the ball first and also had his arms wrapped around the ball. The play was automatically reviewed, and it was decided the ruling would “stand." This language means there is not enough evidence to overturn the call on the field.
There were on-going wage and retirement benefits issues between the owners and the NFL referees since last year. The referees currently earn an average of $149,000 a year to oversee 16 games, and their earnings are projected to go up to $200,000 by 2018. This kind of money is pretty good for a part-time weekend job. Most of the “refs” also have other fulltime work. (One of the more prominent among them — often used as an example — is Ed Hochuli, whose fulltime work is that of an attorney-at-law.) After failed negotiations, the owners decided to “lock out” the regular referees and replace them with substitutes — many of whom came from collegiate ranks.
As to the competency question, there is little reason to believe that a referee experienced on the collegiate gridiron is less competent than one who works with the pros. It is, after all, the same game, with only minor rule differences. What seemed to be going on here is the same thing that happens when a substitute teacher takes over a classroom temporarily. The students often try to see what they can get away with. Likewise, the NFL players and coaches tried to intimidate the replacement referees. TV commentators jumped on the bandwagon and played the “incompetent” card.
If one analyzes the competency of the arbiters of our professional sports, very few would give referees or umpires high marks. Take for example professional baseball. Nearly every televised game now offers a box showing the “K-zone.” TV commentators delight in showing the viewers when an umpire has missed a strike call.
Both the American and National leagues have reviews every year of how accurate the umpires are in making calls. A 75 percent accuracy rate is considered good. In a recent survey this summer, CNN found that umpires were correct in only 66 percent of calls; wrong in 20 percent, with 14 percent too close to call.
How about the National Basketball Association? Nearly every time there is a “charging” call, a controversy ensues. The NBA required a semi-circle be painted on the floor near the basket in an effort to avoid these controversies, but that doesn’t prevent players from “flopping” to get a charge call. In some cases, these calls can mean the difference in winning or losing a championship game. These games often look like free-for-alls in the final minutes because referees have been instructed by the league to “let them play.”
For the most dramatic “flopping” performances, just watch any international soccer match. Those players deserve an Oscar for their expertly executed nose-dives.
Back to the NFL and the regular referees — now that they’re back, all happy and rich, don’t expect perfection. Anyone who follows football can come up with dozens of controversial calls. The aforementioned Ed Hochuli blew an inadvertent whistle in 2008 that cost a game for the San Diego Chargers. He acknowledged his mistake and apologized to Charger coach Norv Turner after the game.
In 2001, the Oakland Raiders missed the playoffs because referee Walt Coleman, relying on the controversial “tuck rule,” awarded an apparently fumbled football back to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who went on to win the game and also the Super Bowl that year.
One might also talk about the “home field” or “home court” advantage, where crowds are allowed to intimidate the opposition players as well as the referees. This “advantage” is so ingrained in our culture that an automobile insurance company uses it in an ad that shows a football referee trying to escape an enraged hometown crowd by driving through backyard fences. So much for the “integrity of the game.”
We might be better served to concern ourselves with the integrity of that American pastime known as politics. The referees of that game, the Supreme Court, decided in 2010 that interest groups known as “super PACs” could spend unlimited amounts of money to support their candidates.
Talk about your “level playing field!” Russian dictator Joseph Stalin once said about democratic elections: “Show me who has the guns, and I’ll show you who wins the election.” Replace the word “guns” with “money,” and you have a pretty accurate description of the election process in America today.
Dan Norvell, a life-long sports fan, retired to Danville after a career in educational publishing and more than 20 years living and working overseas.