A Philosophical Approach to NFL Officiating: Get over it.

We here at Land of 10,000 Losses, being the diligent students of the game that we are, thought it prudent to bring to your attention an overlooked facet of the NFL season through the commencement of three weeks of play: Replacement refs are a joke.

OK, so maybe we aren’t the first to notice this. In fact, we might be the last sports blog to actually comment on this, and that is in no small part because the team getting robbed last night was the Packers… and, well, we kind of liked it. But beyond that there is something increasingly annoying about the situation unfolding in the NFL. I, for one, am more tired of the dried well that is bitching about the officiating situation than I am the replacement refs themselves. So the NFL is more random than ever before. Is that really a bad thing?

There’s a whole host of reasons why the replacement refs are proving problematic; not least because the integrity of the game is at stake. Do we know if that referee raising his arms in the end zone was being paid under the table by gamblers betting the Seahawks? I mean, it’s sort of unlikely. But do we know? Not really.

But looking past that–rather significant–issue there is something at the heart of the moaning about the replacement referees that says more about us as people than it does about labor negotiations in the NFL. We want things to be fair; we want the game called right. It seems like a simple request. It’s the reason for instant replay and for the extensive training that every official in every major sport–normally–receives. When the rules aren’t followed and the game is turned upside down as a result it’s nothing short of blasphemy to the game that we love.

And yet, we find ourselves in a strange place here. Gradients of truth now pervade professional sports. What is true has never been what actually occurred on the field. What is true is how the officials deciding the outcome see it. No matter the bells and whistles we attach to professional officiating, the NFL is only a hair’s breadth different from Olympic gymnastics in how the game is decided (and NBA basketball sometimes makes gymnastics look downright objective). Human beings still call the game. They will until the computers take over… and honestly, how boring will that be.

There remains something fascinating about the human element. Sure, we hate on officials who wrong our team, cost us a game, or in the case of the Seahawks not too long ago, maybe cost them a Super Bowl. But perspective also makes the game more interesting.

There is something disjointed about watching football with these referees, but it’s not entirely about how dumb they look. In fact, I believe strongly that a good deal of the criticism is because prying eyes are watching much more closely for any hint of indiscretion. The replacement referees know this, and so naturally it affects their decision-making. Then, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course the refs are going to be awful because they’ve been told they are awful and because everybody and their mother is taking to Facebook at a moment’s notice to broadcast the wrong that has been committed against their team.

Are they really that bad? Sometimes, yes. But this the NFL: where unpredictability reigns. Hell, this whole controversy got me to write about football. Are people going to stop watching out of some misplaced sense of football’s failing integrity? I doubt it. In fact, casual fans like myself are actually watching closer. I’m enjoying it. The hardcore football snobs are bitching; we’re giggling. You can say that the brand is tarnished, but to what end? The real referees will be back whether in a week or a year and nothing will have changed other than the new-found respect that fans will have for the officials they previously despised.

So, fans, get over yourselves. Was the call last night wrong? Maybe. But I am sure the reaction is more about people looking for a cause where they have been wronged than it was ever about truth, justice, or some idealized notion of the integrity of the game. It’s just football. Stop playing the victim.

Leave that to us hockey fans.

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