Picture this: it’s your third day working at a local coffee shop, and a customer comes in and orders a latte macchiato. Being an inexperienced barista, you accidentally hand them a caffé macchiato, and they go off on a 10-minute rant about how you’ve ruined their entire calendar year, how people like you are what is wrong with America, and how only provincial, inbred, degenerates don’t know the difference between a latte macchiato and a caffé macchiato.
Now imagine that customer is 300 million Americans and you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be a replacement referee in the NFL. For those that haven’t followed professional football in the last three weeks, the games have all been officiated by replacement referees because the regular NFL referees are in a holdout, primarily over salary and pension disputes. The replacement referees, most of whom were previously high school, small college, and even Lingerie League referees, were trained a few weeks before the season started with the assumption that the NFL referees would not reach an agreement with the league.
Over the past three weeks there have been an absurd amount of missed calls, miscommunication between the refs, and even a case where a referee inexplicably tossed his hat into the end zone, causing a Cowboy’s wide receiver to slip and fall. This season of pro football has been disappointing, disgraceful, and downright hilarious. The most infamous blunder thus far occurred this past Monday when a Hail Mary pass was intercepted by a Green Bay cornerback, grabbed by a Seahawks wide receiver, and then deemed a touchdown, leading to a 14-12 victory for the Seahawks. The game changing call has fueled the media firestorm over the incompetence of the replacement referees and about the overall quality of NFL games this season. Even President Obama weighed in this past Wednesday, tweeting “Is it just me or do we have to get our regular refs back?”
Unfortunately, too much of the focus has been on the replacement referees and not on the NFL executives who put the refs in a situation in which they had no hope of success. To officiate an NFL game after a few years of officiating high school football games is like performing triple bypass surgery after playing the board game Operation. The replacement referees have been thrust into incredibly high-pressure situations after only a few weeks of training, yet are expected to perform just as well as veteran NFL officials.
Most of these replacement refs are average Americans, police officers, lawyers, and realtors, who officiated games part-time at the high school or small college level before being given the opportunity of a lifetime, to be a referee in the NFL. Virtually none of them have experienced the number of fans, TV viewers, and media coverage of a typical NFL game.
Let’s also not forget what the regular referees are fighting for in their negotiations with the NFL. Unlike the NBA, MLB, and NHL, referees in the NFL are employed part-time by the league, yet many spend up to 30 hours per week studying film and keeping up with new rules and regulations of the game. NFL referees are the lowest paid of any of the four major sports leagues, despite the fact that the NFL is a $9 billion industry. I’m not saying the referees are completely blameless, after all they are complaining about a part-time job that pays $149,000 a year on average. However, the NFL ought to acknowledge the amount of pressure their officials are put under on a weekly basis, and compensate them accordingly. They also need to be held accountable for inadequately training the replacements.
Simply put, referees are human, and for every one bad call, they make thousands of great calls. So a referee made a terrible call last Monday. Who cares? Has the city of Green Bay suddenly been plunged into famine? Is the Fox River running red with the blood of the innocent? Of course not, so let’s all remember that it’s just a game, and that if you want to blame someone, blame the NFL executives for creating this mess.