NFL replacement refs’ incompetence solely the fault of the league

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that legendary football coach Glenn “Pop” Warner played for the University of Pennsylvania. He played for Cornell. This version has been corrected.

Sally Jenkins
Columnist September 25, 2012

Let’s see: The count in the NFL is now one ripped-off earlobe, one case of knocked unconscious for 10 minutes, one utter Monday night travesty and five coaches who have gone all “Jerry Springer Show” on incompetent officials. You wonder when the shirt-jerking is going to escalate to completely berserk and a ref will get cold-cocked. The foaming rage against replacement refs has reached such a peak the NFL should dub this Please Don’t Beat a Zebra Week.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and his owner-masters have lost control of what they so smugly refer to as their “product” — as if pro football is an Amana toaster oven. Regardless of right or wrong in the labor dispute with officials, the league is guilty of gross malpractice: Before they locked out the refs, they should have made sure some replacements were halfway decently trained.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

What, exactly, did they expect when they threw these sad sacks on the field in the midst of two teams running at each other with violent intentions? Do the owners not know the history of their own game, the lesson of which is that in a vacuum the players will always bend rules and play more physically?

When a ball hangs in the air, as it did on the final play of Monday night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, the players can’t count on the refs to make a fair, accurate call. The result? A clawing match between Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate and Packers safety M.D. Jennings, followed by mud wrestling. What should have been an interception was called a touchdown, and the rage-fueled outcry continued Tuesday.

Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said, “I have never seen anything like that in my time in football.”

No. He would have to go back to, oh, 1894 to see something like that.

The responsibility for this lies solely with the league for employing crews that are hapless to the point of endangerment. The underpinning of football is to gain a physical edge and move the opponent out of the way. The difference between a clean, play-stopping hit and an illegal one is a split-second of self-control. But if players and coaches sense the refs are unreliable, then they do everything more physically in order to try to impose some certainty on a crapshoot of a contest. They aren’t taking advantage; they’re just trying to solve the problems on the field by imposing their physical will.

That is why every game is beginning to look like a battle scene from “Braveheart,” with Matt Schaub losing part of an ear, Tony Romo almost losing his head, Darrius Heyward-Bey knocked unconscious and hospitalized with a neck injury after lying on the field like a broken doll, and Bill Belichick and Kyle Shanahan running after officials as if they were trying to catch the men who stole their purses.

This is not new. Anyone curious about the history of football officiating should get a copy of historian Michael Oriard’s book, “Reading Football.” Oriard, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs and now teaches at Oregon State, observes that the referee is a distinctly American creation. American football was a complete departure from British rugby in two respects: the violence of tackling and need for officiating.

British rugby operated under an honor code. Team captains acted as the rule keepers, and “fair play” was so ingrained that when penalty kicks were instituted to punish fouls, some were outraged. Oriard quotes one British gentleman: “It is a standing insult to sportsmen to have to play under a rule which assumes that players intend to trip, hack and push their opponents and behave like cads of the most unscrupulous kind.”

But when the American cousins made their own football rules in 1876, the first thing they did was do institute referees, and the reason, according to Oriard, was their wish to redefine scruple so they could play in a more powerful and less chokingly traditional way. Our game was an inherently rule-breaking experience, a celebration of both American physical strength and invention. The constant bending of rules was an expression of Yankee ingenuity, what Oriard calls the “American genius” for circumventing old rules. Walter Camp wrote in 1894 that “the Rugby code was all right for Englishmen who had been brought up upon traditions,” but it tolerated “no innovation.” Which was no fun.

Does any of this sound familiar? Referees were needed because games were interrupted by furious arguments that lasted for a half-hour, and every rule was treated as something to be outwitted and exploited. Linemen picked up handfuls of dirt and flung it in their opposite’s eyes. Punches and kicks were routine and so was biting. Star players were targeted for “crippling.” The mass-formation plays gave cover for all kinds of fouls that left men on the field with broken collarbones and cracked ribs. Pop Warner, who played at Cornell, recalled that players “free lunched” on each other’s legs.

Every week that the NFL puts bungling, inept referees on the field, we will go further back in time. The failure of the owners to anticipate how teams would respond to weak officiating is telling. It tells us how ignorant of the game they really are, how insulated and above it, how spoiled by their skyboxes and bottles of Caymus Select. They planned for four years and built a war chest for last year’s lockout of the players. But they apparently were so haughty, they were blind to the repercussions of a ref lockout, to the fact that men who fight for a living would respond to blown calls with explosive rage.

From Walter Camp onward, every governor or commissioner of the game has understood that it’s his chief duty to control and shape the violence into an organized contest. Both sides share blame for the prolonged labor dispute, but the failure to have an adequate plan in the meantime rests in only one place: the commissioner’s office. Goodell failed in his main responsibility. He is the keeper of the rules. If this is not his job, then what is it?

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