Roger Goodell's High School Senior Yearbook Portrait
So they have come. Not from other professional football leagues -- The NFL's market dominance quickly puts the stake through the heart of competition from comparable leagues, leaving only Arena Ball, whose referees are busy reffing that. Not even from big time college football, the erstwhile Division I, a professional league in all but name [except for the indentured servants called "players" anyway]. See, those referees are competent enough at the refereeing job that they might be one day promoted to NFL referee under legitimate circumstances, as long as they don't put the black eye on their resume of crossing a picket line right now. No, the scab refs for preseason games come from lower down the ladder. They come from the lower subdivisions. They come from high school level. They come from -- not kidding! -- the Lingerie Football League, which I GUESS counts as professional experience in the loosest definition of the term. They are guys, and in one case a gal, who would never otherwise get a chance to sniff an NFL field, thus the temptation of opportunity is too great for them to pass up. They are underskilled. They are overwhelmed. They are scared of fucking up, thus ensuring they inevitably do. There was that one case of them ruling a touchback on a punt that was downed on the 4 yard line, for instance. There's the hesitation -- and do I see a gulp of the throat? -- before they turn on the microphone to announce "offside... my bad, illegal formation, Tennessee," or correct the fact that they let the clock run out, and thus the half end, on a defensive penalty.
Meanwhile Goodell releases "statements" attesting to the validity and competence of the scab, completely ignorning the real world and all its messy empirical data. He must do this, of course, because he is in the middle of "negotiating" with the real refs (i.e. trying to rip them off), and thus cannot under any circumstances admit that he needs them, or wants them, or would be best served by taking them back. It's kinda like when you've been dating someone for a long time, get to the point where you love them, then they dump you, and after that first phase of shock and denial passes, you get in that frame of mind where you know you're supposed to move on but you really don't feel like it. So you run around telling everyone who will listen -- and everyone you can pounce on and tackle when they try and run away from you and you MAKE them listen -- about how you're totally over her and in absolutely don't think about her at all anymore, here I can prove it, I'm going to talk about her non-stop for a solid hour explaining all the ways in which she is flawed and not worth my time and I totally don't miss her and am not thinking about her ever at all because it's over and it was the best thing that ever happened to me, really, and I'm really excited about moving forward and meeting new people, it's just a coincidence that the optimum stargazing setup for that hobby telescope I bought two days ago just so happens to aim it into her open upstairs bedroom window and I'm so over her and not mad at her for dumping me that I've started entering the names of every new guy she hangs out with into google search boxes and Facebook friend finder just to look them up and check them out and make sure they're not assholes because I don't want her to get stuck in a bad relationship because I'm totally over her and wish her no ill will whatsoever, because I'm over her, see, I don't need her at all. And I'm totally going to delete the folder on my hard drive that has all the artisically erotic photos I took of her while we were dating and not masturbate to them anymore.... tomorrow. See? Totally over her, so lets drop it because I'm not here to talk about the past.
This is Goodell re: the real referees. Even down to the point where he has issued a memo with official Talking Points for players and coaches in regards to commenting on and answering questions from the media about, the replacement refs. Which basically boils down to "you're not allowed to say how much they suck." The memo was recirculated earlier this week, likely because the absurdity of the missed calls, non-calls, and incorrect interpretations of rules is so obvious that guys like Drew Brees and Jim Harbaugh can't NOT say anything lest they lose all cred as human beings capable of cognition and critical thought. Goodell is determined to give every kid in the Special Ed class a Certificate Of Achievement and a Trophy Just For Showing Up And Trying and you will NOT SAY ANYTHING TO RIP ON THESE POOR KIDS OR HURT THEIR FEELINGS AT ALL. DON'T. SAY. A WORD. So far, at least, the games are scam scrimmages that don't count so nobody's season is truly getting fucked up by the officiating yet. BUT that's going to change in two weeks or so when the annual preseason farce ends and the real games begin, and all indicators are the scabs will still be reffing in Week 1 and beyond.
Fan and punditoid alike are naturally concerned about the implications. After all, how many times has a bad call cost a team a game even with the real refs out there? How many times does a team miss qualifying for the playoffs by one game, or on a tiebreaker? The scab referees could very well fuck a team's entire season over in Week 1. It could very well be YOUR team. If you're a Raider fan, you've probably already convinced yourself this is fated to happen. The articles practically write themselves for ESPN.com and Deadspin and their ilk. Dire predictions of worst-case scenarios are as prolific as girlish screams at a Justin Bieber concert, and the indignant question rhetorically asked over and over again is "doesn't the NFL realize what's at risk here? Don't they see they can't afford the black eye to the integrity of the competition? What if some team loses a game as a direct result of these scabs fucking up?" Surely they will relent and get the real refs back by Week 1, right? It's not that much money relative to a billion dollar revenue industry like the NFL, just pay them.
Nothing is at risk here, in the eyes of the NFL, except those few scrap millions the real refs want in salary increase. They have the off-season news cycle and the NFL network as their proof: slap The Shield on it, and we will pay to consume it, no matter what. We'll still watch. Sure, we'll get angry and make jokes about how bad the scabs are to ease the pain, but we'll watch next week anyway. The NFL is a TV show: if you have a high end TV in your home, your gameday experience is better there than if you buy a ticket: no line for your bathroom, drink all the beers you want even during the 4th quarter, no traffic to beat to an ever-clogged parking lot that's expanded out into unpaved mudflat land [sidenote: Candlestick has the shittiest parking lot ever. I literally lost a shoe once walking out from a Monday Night game as a kid. As much as "we need a new stadium" is invariably a scam by league owners to grab the public tax money of their peasant fans, the 49ers really do need a new stadium that's not such an odyssey to get in and out of]. Anyway, as I was saying NFL = TV show. i.e. it has transformed from sport to entertainment; content filler and ad space seller for the TV network overlords. Bad calls, as they are oft one to say, are Part Of The Game. More so though, however, than they care to admit, and here is where we start getting close to understanding why I put that long, ominous, and so clearly German compound word in the title of this piece. The bad calls are part of the game because they DO affect the outcome. They are the difference between a plucky underdog pulling off the upset and sending a mighty team home early, or said mighty team reenforcing the status quo and defecating on the hopes and dreams of the other side in the process. Ask Neil about "Completing The Process Of A Catch" sometime. But make sure you stand well outside his wingspan before doing so.
This is the hook for us fans. This is part of the key to the NFL's popularity. The playing field is presented to us as more or less even. Contrast with, say, baseball or basketball, where 2/3 of the teams are known to be jabronis from the outset, filling out the schedule so that the real contenders have someone to beat up and cut their teeth on. "Big Market" teams generate more revenue and ratings, thus they spend more money, thus they win, defeating the permanent underclass in Kansas City or Charlotte over and over again. The NFL presents the fan base with a different, ostensibly more egalitarian, contest. Player salary spending is tightly capped. Careers are shorter, drafted players start playing earlier, and due to the violence of the sport teams win championship games, not series'. "Any Given Sunday." Every team can be a contender, if not this year than perhaps next. Any team, with a little luck, can rise up and go far. Conversely, no team is so mighty that they cannot be felled by a fluke injury to their quarterback or, in the spirit of this column, screwed out of their rightful level of success by a shitty referee's decision.
Die Dolchstosslegende. The Myth of The Stab In The Back. During WWI, the western front was in France. The eastern front was in Russia. These stretches of land, where fighting was heaviest, were pounded into oblivion and beyond by repeated shelling and hills of corpses mowed down when they tried frontal charges against mounted machine guns. To the point where they STILL find discharged shells, all these decades later, now and then. The average German citizen, full of nationalistic pride in the Kaiser and the German military, didn't see the damage of the war up close. So it was easier for the government to convince the people that they were winning, always winning, always on the verge of victory. The German War Machine was too good to lose. And then one day, the Germans woke up and learned they had lost. The Kaiser was overthrown by a republican revoltion on November 9th, and that new government (remembered pejoritavely in history as The Weimar Republic, because they moved the political capital of Germany from Berlin to a small city called Weimar. Creative, no?) negotiated a surrender and an end to WWI on November 11th. And the rest of the "civilized" world was about to start holding their face down, nose first, in the massive steaming pile of shit WWI had made of the world, shouting "bad dog" at them over and over while stripping them of their imperial holdings (and keeping them for themselves, because fuck actually giving the underclass of the world independence) and their ability to even have a military. And as the German people were left to watch their economy crumble, and their very name become a cuss word and explanation for everything wrong with the world today, they were left wondering What Happened. Weren't we winning? We were too good to lose, weren't we? Maybe we weren't.
Extremely susceptible, then, to any demagogue charismatic enough to come along and say "We Didn't Lose. We Were Screwed! Betrayed From Within!" And we all know how that story ends. The Myth Of Being Stabbed In The Back, because we could not have been beaten by others, we must have beaten ourselves.
"Offside, Herr Linebacker. Five yard penalty, automatic first down,
Tom Brady gets another chance. And he'll keep getting them until he
finally converts one."
So professional football results don't have quite the same gravity as Geopolitics and World Wars (then again, we DO take pro football wins and losses very seriously in our culture, often applying military and "life or death" metaphors of phrase to the game). But this idea of denial in the face of defeat, the need for a scapegoat and an excuse for why one side is still better than the side that beat them, is oh so prevalent among sports fans, especially NFL fans, who refer to their favorite teams as a "we" rather than a "they" when discussing them. In this role, The Conniving Replacement Ref peforms admirably. Even better than the real ones, who have their own rap sheet of screwing over your War Machine Of Choice and denying them a rightly deserved victory over an inferior opponent who your boys will certainly trounce next time when that saving fluke won't happen again.
Two weeks from now, if your "we" loses, remember that "we" didn't really lose. "We were screwed. "We" are still too good a team to lose legitimately. "We" are still a playoff and thus Super Bowl contender. "We" have reason to stay tuned and buy more Coors/Miller/Bud Light. For there must always be an excuse and a scapegoat, no one can actually be a loser. A loser's fan base might tune out and wonder when basketball or hockey season starts. When your team beats itself, or is unlucky, betrayed from within by a fumbling punt returner or screwed by The Conniving Ref, you will be furious, but you'll be eager to tune in next year when your team "finally gets its fair chance to show what it can do".
So the scab refs really don't hurt the brand or the business model at all. That's why they'll still be around in two weeks.