By now, there’s no need to rehash the blown call that ended week three of the National Football League season and left everyone — fans, players, coaches, politicians, and media types — fuming at the replacement officials brought in thanks to the owners lockout of the league’s professional referees. Everyone has seen it, the league has denied the Green Bay Packers’ appeal to overturn the call, and what’s done is done — except the lockout, which everyone is starting to realize is jeopardizing the quality of the game.
The call was bad. It cost the Packers a much-needed win, and the outcome may play a big role in determining whether Seattle or Green Bay goes to the playoffs later this winter. But here’s the thing: it was nowhere near the biggest, most dangerous blunder the refs have made this season.
Golden Tate, the Seattle wide receiver who caught the game-winning touchdown pass without actually catching the game-winning touchdown pass (after blatantly interfering with a Green Bay defender, no less), was the perpetrator of an illegal block that knocked Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee out of the team’s previous game. The hit, clearly against NFL rules, didn’t draw a flag. And this week, there were more like it: Oakland Raiders wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey left on a stretcher after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit that didn’t earn Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Mundy a penalty.
Those are the hits that concerned NFL players when the season began without a settlement between the league and the NFL Referees Association. Those are the hits that led DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, to tell me that the labor dispute “flies in the face” of the NFL’s efforts to make the game safer for players. Those are the hits that a competent officiating crew could prevent, or at least penalize, by keeping control of the game and policing it the way it is meant to be policed. And those are the hits that haven’t drawn the outrage drawn by last night’s call.
It’s a shame that the Packers lost a game because of a blown call. But it would have been a bigger shame had Heyward-Bey’s career ended because of the cavalier nature in which the scab officials, and the league itself, has treated head-crunching hits since the season began. And it’s an even bigger shame that those hits aren’t becoming a bigger concern with fans and the media.
It’s hard to know definitively that the exact hits wouldn’t take place with the real referees on the field. Some undoubtedly would. What is inarguable is that the replacement refs, through their own incompetence, have lost the respect of the players, and as a result, they have lost control of the games. Players are pre-ordained to push the limits of the acceptable, and by not flagging them for blatantly illegal and incredibly dangerous hits, the replacements are enabling them. That makes the field a more dangerous place for everyone involved.
Let’s face it: the NFL doesn’t care about player safety, and neither do fans. Hits like those on Darius Heyward-Bey and Sean Lee are what keep football fans coming back for more, and only blown calls that directly affect the outcomes of nationally-televised games are enough to turn the replacement refs from a laughingstock into a point of outrage. And because fans don’t care, because the media doesn’t care, the league will never care enough, at least until someone like Heyward-Bey is leaving the field on a stretcher without his thumb in the air.
The NFL and its replacement referees deserve all the scorn they are getting for demeaning the product and making a mockery of the sport. But the real scorn should come from the fact that the league replaced unionized workers with scabs and is jeopardizing the safety of its players to save pennies on the dollar. This is America, though, where we apparently don’t care about our fellow workers or the modern day gladiators who are ruining their lives one hit at a time, as long as the right team wins the football game.