Column: Take it Easy on the Zebras
By JACOB VAUGHAN, Sports Editor
Sep 21, 2012, 15:43
This is, in all likelihood, the thousandth column you’ve read about the woes of the National Football League’s replacement officials.
By now, you probably already know the league’s normal referees are boycotting because of a labor dispute. You probably also have read that the bumbling bunch of high school, arena league and Division III college whistle blowers brought in as understudies have had a rough go of it so far.
But I’d be willing to wager these will be the first words you’ve stumbled upon that praise the stand-in zebras.
Bear with me.
I’m not saying the replacements have been good. They haven’t. The group’s shortcomings are painfully obvious in every broadcast.
Games are running longer and tasks that were once regarded as trivial – like say, spotting the football after a penalty – are consistently befuddling this group.
At least one replacement has been ousted as an ardent supporter of a team whose game he was scheduled to officiate. Another allegedly joked about having players in a game he presided over on his fantasy football team, a blatant conflict of interest.
Moreover, every misstep strengthens the stance of the referees union. With each blown call and unnecessary conference, NFL fans long more and more for the Herculean biceps of Ed Hochuli, a 21-year veteran official whose chiseled physique is rivaled in firmness only by his sterling reputation.
In the long run, the league’s replacement ref experiment will be regarded as a whopping failure. NFL brass called the union’s bluff by fielding what appears to be a beleaguered batch of anybody with a striped shirt and whistle. The implication was, “See, anyone can do your job.”
Now fans, pundits and players are scratching their heads in disbelief as the NFL stubbornly refuses to give the holdouts whatever they want. Why wouldn’t the league set aside a few million dollars in a multi-billion dollar industry to preserve the integrity of its game?
It’s only a matter of time before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his cohorts cave.
In the meantime, however, perhaps we should take it easy on the guys in black and white. It seems strange, but without them, the NFL might not be able to function. Scary as it may seem, these refs are the best available.
The most experienced college officials are still working games in the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference and other Division I leagues. It would be short-sighted of them to give up their jobs for a temporary position on the game’s biggest stage.
That reduces the field to officials from lower college ranks, high schools and obscure arena leagues.
Adjusting to the speed of the professional game is a tall order, and it can’t be easy to make that transition when the scrutiny of an entire sports-watching nation rests squarely on your shoulders.
Highlight packages are no longer complete without a compilation of officiating blunders. Players have made a habit of protesting every call or non-call in hopes of influencing decisions and coaches are routinely pestered for their evaluations of the stand-ins.
It’s a thankless job being a replacement official, but they are doing the best they can.
Maybe we should consider where we’d be without them.
The NFL has employed high school and lower level college officials as stand-ins during a labor dispute (photo by Jacob Vaughan).