Commentary

The NFL's official mess

Underqualified refs hurting game, and it could end up hurting players

Updated: September 19, 2012, 1:59 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

They gave it two weeks, and enough is enough. Monday night's wholesale embarrassment by the NFL's replacement referees -- coming after Sunday's embarrassment, which came after the Saints fanboy side-judge embarrassment, which came after Thursday's embarrassment -- should tell DeMaurice Smith and the NFLPA all they need to know. If they have the good of their membership at heart, they'll send a terse memo to 345 Park Avenue:

Dear Mr. Goodell,

Fix it.

Until you do, we will respectfully withhold our services, since it has become overwhelmingly obvious that playing under the current conditions presents an unnecessary and abnormal danger to our persons and livelihood.

Sincerely,

NFLPA

[+] EnlargeNFL Officials
AP Photo/Denis PoroyThere have been a lot of methodical conferences on the field.

Roger Goodell and his 32 owners can humiliate themselves all they want attempting to make a point regarding roughly 1 percent of total revenue, but the players are the ones who have to take the field and put their bodies on the line with a group of confused, stammering officials whose previous idea of a big game was Edward Waters vs. Ave Maria.

What more evidence do they need? Before Week 2, the biggest embarrassment came when ESPN uncovered the Facebook page of one of the Saints' most fanatical, gear-wearingest fans, who inconveniently happened to be in the lineup for Sunday's Panthers-Saints game. As a side judge.

The NFL, through its various spokesmen, has said it conducts and has conducted background checks on all referees, new and old. But if the league can't conduct the type of baseline social media background check that every convenience store manager mastered in the past five years, how can the players -- partners in the enterprise, presumably -- trust it to do the kind of background check that might turn up something more serious? Like, I don't know -- emotional instability? Debt issues? Gambling problems? Now, there's a place nobody wants to go, except perhaps someone with a whole lot to gain by getting to someone without a whole lot to lose. Then again, the way these games are looking right now, how in the world would you be able to ferret out the difference between a blown call and a purposely blown call?

The weekend turned Fanboy Side Judge into a quaint footnote. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was absolutely correct when he suggested the replacements "are affecting the integrity of the game" after his team lost to the Eagles on Sunday. Aaron Rodgers was absolutely correct last week when he said after his team lost to the 49ers that it would be nice if the replacement refs knew the rules. (And how often do you find an NFL quarterback criticizing the refs for giving his team a touchdown it didn't deserve?) And John Fox was absolutely correct in wearing a perpetual look of apoplexy on the sideline Monday night.

The replacements are slow, confused and very often wrong. (On the positive side, most of them seem to have figured out how to put on their uniforms properly. All stripes vertical? Check.) There are times when they sound like high school refs, as the referee did Monday night when he made calls such as "First down red," and called a personal foul on "93 red." They flaunted their incompetence -- practically wearing it like a 12-foot dunce cap -- when they took six minutes to figure out a Knowshon Moreno fumble somewhere in the detritus of an hour-long first quarter. In the meantime, while the refs were playing rock-paper-scissors on the fumble issue, the Broncos and Falcons decided to celebrate the moment by coming within a hair's-breadth of a sideline-clearing, helmet-throwing brawl.

If you closed your eyes, you could almost see Goodell screaming for his scabs to make a call, any call, before a bunch of grown men in pads decided to tear up the social contract and let their frustrations turn into a remake of "Warriors."

It should come as no surprise that the referee situation got worse -- way worse -- from Week 1 to Week 2. (And since we're talking about a Week 1 that included a four-timeout half for the Seahawks, it's a liberal curve.) And you know what? It's going to get progressively worse.

When it comes to understanding how far they can push, and how much of an advantage they can gain, professional football players are geniuses. The longer this penny-ante lockout lasts, the more chippy the games are going to be and the more cheap shots the smart guys are going to pull off successfully.

(And how about $10-million-a-year Goodell, discussing the pension benefit he's attempting to wrest away from the 119 part-time employees, saying, "Yours truly doesn't have that"? Let's all join together in hoping Roger can salt away a few pennies for retirement between now and 2019, when his salary rises to $20 million.)

In many ways, Monday night's scene looked a lot like Sunday night's, when the 49ers' Alex Smith and the Lions' Matthew Stafford both were hit late, on the head, with no call. If the guys doing the hitting figure out they can get away with turning Smith -- or any of his QB compatriots -- into a blood-soaked Chuck Wepner without so much as being penalized 15 yards, they're going to do it every chance they get. And you know where that's going to lead? To offensive linemen like Joe Staley or Anthony Davis taking matters into their own hands, most likely.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe replacement refs certainly didn't please John Fox.

I've seen at least five instances where receivers have essentially called penalties through the sheer power of their diva-ness. They're the closest thing in the NFL to Spanish soccer players, and they know how to ladle the drama with the big spoon. And onto this scene comes the overmatched Replacement Ref, whose previous experience with "big-time receivers" was that one kid from that big high school who might've gotten a chance to play Division I if he'd only taken algebra. Replacement Ref didn't really see the play, and he's running toward the players like he'd give away every cent he's ever earned for someone else to make the call. And staring up at him is an All-Pro wide receiver -- pick one, any one -- pantomiming a flag being thrown while wearing the most aggrieved face since Jon Gruden roamed the sideline. What's Replacement Ref going to do? He's going to throw that flag, that's what.

Many parts of this sad-sack display are humorous, especially considering it emanates from an institution that thrives on self-importance. But for the players, there's a more serious side. Under the new commitment to player safety -- I know, that's you I hear laughing in the background as the rumination over Moreno's fumble continues -- the officials are entrusted to be on-field arbiters of possible concussions. The regular officials are trained to judge whether a player is too woozy to remain in the game, since we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that players who can still find the huddle will continue to play.

These guys out there now can't see late hits in one-on-one situations in the middle of the field. How are they to be expected to assess whether a player's mental faculties have been compromised enough to merit removal from the game? It's too much to ask of guys who are working hard to keep track of themselves. They're trying not to take on too much water, and now you're asking them to bail out the boat and water ski at the same time.

They're simply not trained to do what the regulars do. It's not even a criticism, really, just a fact. But just because their incompetence is well-earned doesn't mean the players have to accept it. Now seems like the perfect time to see if they have the power to end it.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com