The replacement refs stunk. This fact was well established through the first three weeks of regular season action, capped by the ca-Tate-strophic end to the Seahawks/Green Bay game on Monday Night Football (and to a lesser extent, the Patriots/Ravens game on Sunday). Fortunately, the era of the replacements ended late last night with a last minute deal, just in time to save this week’s Thursday night game. Phew.
The saga of the replacement refs, aka Tategate, marks a unique moment in the NFL. For the first time in recent memory, the players and coaches rebelled against the Big Brother mentality of the NFL and actually expressed their opinions about their dissatisfaction with the ruling party, Roger Goodell. Broncos coach John Fox was fined $30,000 for his criticism of the officiating. Redskins’ offensive coordinator Kyle Shananhan was fined $25,000 of for arguing with a ref. The NFL sent a letter to the owners of the teams, prior to week three, telling them to refrain from publicly disparaging the replacement officials. Did it work? Judging from Clay Matthews’ post of Roger Goodell’s phone number on Matthews’ Twitter feed, nope.
The players and coaches didn’t care about the consequences. Normally, publicly showing anger toward the leader and his rules would result in a public denouncement, pecuniary penalty and loss of one’s ability to provide for his family. Doesn’t that sound a bit like North Korea?
The replacement ref situation sheds an interesting light on the greed of the organization, but the issue is far bigger than that. It’s already been well documented that the cost of giving the referees what they were asking for amounts to less than a percent of league revenues. What is far more interesting than the money at stake is that, until last week, the participants in the league were expected to sit on their hands when asked their opinion on the subject by friends, family and the media. The NFL way is to say “no comment.” This silence is very different than that offered by Bill Belichick each week in his press conferences, as its not strategic in nature. This silence comes from fear of punishment.
What is wrong with an opinion? In the military, suppression of the individual to benefit the whole makes legitimate sense- lives are at risk. In corporate America, however, some of the best ideas come from workers at the bottom of the ranks making a suggestion or presenting an idea to the CEO. Can you imagine what would have happened if Tim Cook had instantly docked someone’s paycheck because he questioned the 3D map capabilities of the iPhone5?
Yes, there’s always the concern that allowing the players to harness the Twitterverse to complain about every pass interference call will ultimately diminish the product that the NFL puts on the field (and TV, and Internet) each week. Judging from the quality of the product showcased last weekend in Seattle, Goodell has lost the ability to put forth that argument. This is not an essay for anarchy. Bill Belichick was rightly fined for grabbing a ref on Sunday night. The average American can’t walk into her superior’s office and tell him she thinks he’s an a-hole without providing some sort of backup, but she does have a right to complain about him to her colleagues in the breakroom or write a Jerry McGuire missive.
Let the players speak, Roger. When they are mad at a bad call after a heartbreaking loss, let them say so instead of acting like Proletariat robots. Let them throw a childish tantrum every now and again without fear of losing significant amounts of money. Let them keep the officials honest. Let them keep the owners honest. Let them keep you honest. And by the way, isn’t that their right as passport-carrying US citizens?