OPINION: While replacement referees are making the NFL look silly they are also illustrating the league's power.
The NFL locked out its referees in June and has been using replacement officials for the season's first three weeks with no end in sight to the dispute.
The result has been messy games full of botched calls with the nadir reached last week in the Denver Broncos-Atlanta Falcons game that took 3 hours and 27 minutes, with a two-hour first half as the referees continually conferred over basic decisions.
It's exactly what was predicted when the league first said it would use the replacements, brought in from college football and retirement homes (well almost).
But for all the moaning about the standard of refereeing from players, former players and fans, it has not had any effect on the numbers watching the games.
The NFL is far and away the No 1 sport in America and is clearly so strong that it can put out a rubbish product and still not lose viewers.
As former quarterback Steve Young pointed out last week, the NFL doesn't care about how disgusted the fans are because their bottom line remains unaffected.
If fans really do want proper referees reinstated then they need to stop watching because one thing that would force the league's hand is plummeting viewer numbers.
On the face of it, the dispute seems absurd. The NFL pulled in US$9.3 billion (NZ$11.2b) in sales last year yet it is prepared to compromise its standard over referees' demands that would cost an extra US$1.5 million (NZ$1.8m).
Actually that is beyond absurd, it's crazy.
The players also have the power to force the league's hand.
Just as in rugby, poor officiating leads to spiteful matches. As players get more frustrated and confused at bad calls, they tend to take it out on their opponents, particularly once they see opposing players getting away with foul play.
If the players do have as serious a concern over the standard of refereeing as they claim, then they could refuse to play until the proper referees are reinstated. They could legitimately claim it is a safety issue.
It would make for an interesting quandary for Roger Goodell, the league commissioner, as fans would most likely back the players.
Surely the safety issue must be giving him nightmares. All it takes is for one of the game's marquee players to be badly injured in a late and/or dangerous hit in a poorly refereed game and he will be in the crosshairs.
It could have happened last week. Robert Griffin III was continually cheap-shotted by the St Louis Rams defensive line. If he had gone down with a season or career-ending injury it's a certainty that a lawsuit would have followed.
Why would a commissioner as respected as Goodell be risking so much over such a minute amount of money in the grand scheme of the NFL?
One theory is that Goodell is following the lead of NBA commissioner David Stern in creating an annoying diversion before a season to get fans fired up. It's not as bats hit crazy a conspiracy theory as it might first appear. \The NFL has had a barrage of bad publicity in the past few months with the Saints bounty case and concussion lawsuit along with suicides of former players.
But now all the attention is on the poor out-of-their-depth replacement officials.
So maybe it is Goodell just being crazy, crazy like a fox.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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