I skipped out on watching the Emmys ceremony last night to watch the Ravens-Patriots game, which I think was the right decision for both the football and the spectacle. The game was a high-scoring brawl between teams who are developing a fantastic and eminently watchable East Coast rivalry. And towards the end of it, enraged by a series of decisions by the replacement referees, the game’s attendees provided some theater of their own, loudly and repeatedly calling out the officials.
Maybe the most striking thing about the game wasn’t that the fans booed the replacement referees over a series of blown calls, but that NBC aired their repeated chants of “bullshit,” without obscuring the sound. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ducked how to handle fleeting expletives on television, including this summer, when the Court refused to consider the First Amendment questions in Fox and ABC’s disputes with the FCC, though it said the agency had to give networks fair warning of what make them vulnerable to fines. The chants in the game happened after the end of primetime at 11 PM, so NBC may have considered itself less vulnerable to censure. But they also weren’t exactly fleeting: they went on for an extended period of time and served as a sonic backdrop to the announcers’ criticism of the replacement referees performance. In a sense, the decision not to obscure the chants or to turn the volume down on them was one of the gutsier editorial decisions NBC could have made, illustrating a clear consensus between the fans and the experts on the damage the replacements had done to the game.
At halftime, word came down that, after a Sunday devoted to negotiations between the referees’ union and the National Football League, there were still “substantial differences” between the parties and that no more negotiations were scheduled. It’ll be intriguing to see if this game changes the NFL’s sense of how long it can maintain its position in this particular standoff. I think NBC’s presentation of the game—and its announcers willing to criticize the replacement referees—are more likely to shake loose this particular standoff than to move the Supreme Court. But I’m glad to see them air a newsworthy reaction by fans, especially after the Justice Department dropped its pursuit of Fox, which had refused to pay an FCC fine over an episode of television that depicted strippers. If the Supreme Court isn’t going to make itself clear, the networks should push for as much latitude as they can get.