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Friday, 22 June 2012

Save the Zebras: a warning to the League office.

As June enters its final days, the NFL continues its lockout of its employees, refusing to budge. Sure, there's time before the season begins, but the two sides are as far apart as they have ever been, there is no resolution in sight, and the lockout could continue well into the season. Already, the idea of bringing in replacements has been mooted, which could have huge implications for the level of play we'll see on Sundays this autumn. Indeed, such a move as having replacements fill the void left by those locked out by the league may very well have change the course of NFL history. And yet, knowing this, the NFL continues to lock out their employees, and no-one knows if the dispute will be resolved in time. Increasingly, it looks very much like it will not.

This is not the 2011 NFL lockout of their players. This lockout is happening right now.

In an offseason where NFL news has been dominated by the “Bountygate” scandal, other news items that would have been headlines – the suicide of Junior Seau; the 2500 former players suing the league; one of the greatest QBs of this, or any, age, Peyton Manning, being released from the Colts and signing elsewhere – have filled out the rest of the news agenda. Pushed way, way down the running order is the fact that the NFL are engaged in another labour dispute that could have the most significant of ramifications for the 2012 season: the league has, for weeks now, locked out the members of the NFLRA – the National Football League Referees Association.

Yes, it's not a sexy headline, and unlike the 2011 lockout of the players, it won't threaten to delay the NFL season, or cause any games to be cancelled. But it would be foolish to dismiss the implications of this lockout. Already, the league officials make dubious calls that end up changing the outcome of a game – or even the outcome of the entire NFL season. And I'm not overstating the case by saying so. An example: 2010, Week 15: Detroit Lions @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (yes, of course I'm going to mention the Bucs wherever I can). Fourth quarter: the Bucs were trailing the Lions 17-14. As he was so adept to do in 2010, Freeman kicked his play into high gear for the fourth quarter, and he led the drive down the field. On third-and-goal, Freeman throws an pass to Kellen Winslow, who turns away from a covering to defender to catch the ball. Touchdown.
The play that changed the outcome
of the 2010 season - you can expect
many more such mistakes if the
NFLRA lockout is not resovled
But wait. A yellow flag flies; one of the back judges claims that Winslow was guilty of offensive pass interference, nullifying the penalty. The Bucs settle for a fieldgoal to tie the game. The Bucs score a second field goal inside the two minute mark to take the lead, but the Lions are able to score a field goal of their own to send the game into overtime. Detroit wins the cointoss, marches down the field, and scores a field goal on their first possession to win the game, 23-20. Had Winslow's touchdown stood, the Bucs may well have won, 24-20. The following day, the NFL released a statement, officially apologising to Tampa Bay: the OPI call was bogus – the touchdown should have stood, which likely would have won the Bucs the game.

That occurred with the regular officials, who are meant to regulate the game week-in, week-out. They made a mistake that changed the course of NFL history – how can we trust replacements, shipped in at the last moment, to not make similar errors with such huge ramifications?

Oh, and don't think I'm so narrow-sighted to believe that a single Bucs loss in and of itself changed NFL history; but in the wider view, there is no question that the blown call by the official did just that. With the Bucs winning that game, they would have ended up with an 11-5 record, rather than 10-6. That one extra W would have secured the Bucs' the #6 seed for the playoffs. The team that would have then missed out on the postseason? The Green Bay Packers. That's right – if the referee never incorrectly flags Winslow for OPI, the Packers' 10-6 record means they never made the playoffs, never won three road games to make it to Super Bowl XLV, and never become “world” champions for the fourth time in franchise history. Simply put, that one blown call in the Lions @ Bucs game is the difference between Green Bay winning the championship and never making the playoffs.

Fast forward to September 2012. The season starts, but replacements man all the officials spots. With even less experience and unkeen eyes, how many holds, facemasks, personal fouls do they miss? How many times to they mistakenly call a defense for an offsides penalty, rather than an offense for a false start? More importantly, how many legal touchdowns to they overturn on a bogus call, or how many non-touchdowns do they award because they missed a hold downfield to spring open a receiver? How many games that are won by one team, would have been won by the other if the regular referees were officiating? How many teams are screwed out of the playoffs because of one game earlier in the season whose result was dubious, thanks to bad refereeing? Will we have to put an asterisk by the name of whoever wins Super Bowl 47, as they may have never actually deserved a playoff spot in the first place?
How many times will the yellow
hankies fly for the wrong reasons?

Roger Goodell might think that he secured his legacy by ultimately resolving the 2011 player lockout while saving all but one game, the meaningless “Hall of Fame” game played one week before the preseason starts. Well, Mr. Commissioner, I have bad news for you: if there is a single team who misses the playoffs due to bad officiating by replacement officials, drafted in because you failed to resolve the dispute with the NFLRA, your legacy will be torn to shreds; you will be remembered as the commissioner who changed NFL history by failing to ensure adequate officiating for games. And how do you think the fanbase of such a team will react? A game that is played on inconsistently-enforced rules cannot thrive, and let me tell you, if, somehow, the Jets are the team that are screwed out of a win by your inability to broker a deal with the referees' union, you will have to announce draft selections from a podium behind 6-inch re-enforced bulletproof glass for the rest of your time in office.

This is all before I've even touched upon the legal liability that the league is putting itself in. Already, as stated, over two-and-a-half thousand former NFL players are suing the league, with claims being made that the NFL actively suppressed studies detailing the long-term effects on the brain of concussions, effectively lying to the players about the level of the risk they were agreeing to when they signed their first contracts (and for those who say, “they would have played anyway if they had known the risks”, tell that to Jacob Bell or Asher Allen). With untrained, replacement officials, every player on every roster for 2012 will have at least some grounds to file suits of their own, claiming that the league intentionally used officials who they knew would not be as effective at spotting helmet-to-helmet hits, cheap shots, or have even more trouble interpreting the term “defenseless receiver” - all of which could lead to a greater level of concussions and other injuries to the players, compared to when playing under NFLRA-affiliated officials.

So, between setting themselves up for further lawsuits down the road from the current players, and putting the fairness, and potential outcome, of the 2012 season in the hands of untrained, inexperienced officials, history might remember, in the most damning of terms, the 2012 official lockout far more vividly than the 2011 player lockout. I say to you, Goodell, Pash, and the other holders of league offices: your legacies are yet to be decided – it would be wise to resolve this situation, before those legacies are tarnished beyond redemption.

Also, if you lock him out, Ed Hochuli will hunt you down and will make you pay.

- Gur "Fred" Samuel (@FredTheGur)
- The Pulling Linemen

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