© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Without zebras, the game's a zoo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2012 - My editor had an interesting idea for this week’s column. She suggested I write about the replacement referees working in the NFL, likening them to amateur cops who were no where near ready for prime time. The metaphor appealed to me. 

I hadn’t given the referee situation serious consideration before she contacted me. League owners had locked out their regular officials — often called zebras because of the distinctive black and white striped shirts they wear — due to a stalemate over compensation and replaced them with refs recruited primarily from collegiate ranks.

The NFL and referees are reported to have reached an agreement that will put the pros back on the field, but let's consider what has happened.

Of course, the refs who work big time college football were already obligated to work those games, so the substitutes were drawn from the lower levels of the amateur game. These people had, in effect, been promoted directly from sixth grade to graduate school and were clearly in over their heads.

I had initially dismissed the issue as an employment dispute that didn’t involve me. Generally, my instincts are to side with labor in these things; but to be fair, you’d have to study management’s position before arguing an opinion.

And though the stand-ins were clearly inferior to the real thing, I’ve always felt an ambiguous pity for scabs because these forlorn souls are truly trapped between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, they’re laborers who work to lower the wage scale. In the long run, they damage their own prospects for a decent living by reporting for duty. On the other, these people have families to feed and bills to pay like everybody else. So, they betray their fellows — and ultimately their selves — to meet their immediate needs. Most of them would probably love to be members of the union, if only they could get in.

Despised by organized labor and callously exploited by management, these unfortunates had enough troubles without some smart-ass columnist satirizing their ineptitude. Had I written about them, I would have probably used the scab refs to illustrate the social costs of treating labor as a commodity.

But the editor’s concept intrigued me. By viewing the subs as Barney Fife impersonators, we could use the NFL as a laboratory of sorts to study what happens when the real police take a holiday. Initially, at least, you may barely miss them.

Imagine that you’re driving in a city that has just experienced a massive power outage, rendering all of its electric traffic signals inoperative. At first, most motorists probably behave responsibly. They treat the now unmonitored intersections as four-way stops and take turns proceeding through them.

This happy state of affairs endures until somebody realizes he can violate the informal agreement with impunity. After all, with every light in town out of service, there aren’t enough cops to go around. Why wait in line when you can simply honk and speed through when you’re in a hurry? Once this practice gains traction, the countdown to chaos has begun.

Similarly, the replacement refs didn’t seem to matter all that much when they debuted. Preseason play is always uneven with a field dominated by rookies and free agents. Most players were thus more concerned with making the team than testing the refs’ limits; and everybody with a pro contract understands the basic rules of the game. Because preseason games don’t count in the standings and no sane person bets on them, nobody really cares who wins.

All this changed when play began in earnest. Hesitant and inconsistent, the ersatz zebras were obviously intimidated by the speed and power of the pro game. For their part, the players soon learned the substitute teachers would tolerate behavior the regular instructors would never abide.

Judgment calls like holding and pass interference were unevenly enforced while the number of after-the-whistle shoving matches began to increase. In a sport where violent contact is routine, players cannot allow themselves to be cowered and thus cannot afford to absorb a gratuitous hit without retaliating. For their part, the replacement refs began to resemble security guards losing control of a disorderly crowd.

The ability to assert authority in the face of turmoil is as much an art as it is a science. The seasoned beat cop spends as much time practicing applied psychology as he does enforcing the law. He knows which words to avoid when asserting his office and how to deflect outrage from himself. The rookie zebras have obviously not mastered the art and absent wizened mentors, probably won’t survive long enough to figure it out.

The NFL Players’ Association has now written an open letter to team owners, petitioning them to restore the real officials to protect its members from themselves. By the third Sunday night game of the season, television commentators Al Michaels and Chris Collingsworth had resorted to blasphemy by openly criticizing the refs on the air. In truth, they had little choice because their audience was watching the same game they were.

But of course, officiating ineptitude would not reach its high water mark until Monday night’s contest between Green Bay and Seattle — a game that might as well have been decided by the flip of a coin.

Trailing 12 – 7 as the clock expired, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson heaved a desperation fourth-down pass into a crowd in the corner of the end zone. That play resulted in the now classic photo of two officials standing next to each other: one signaling a Green Bay interception while his colleague signaled a Seattle touchdown.

Describing the approach of the apocalypse, W.B. Yeats predicted, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold …” In the NFL of replacement refs, you can bet the center will hold every chance he gets — as will the rest of the interior linemen. But the sport’s integrity has most assuredly been falling apart.