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.
The Post Sports Live crew discusses the fallout following another blown call in an NFL game, this time costing the Green Bay Packers a victory in Seattle on Monday night, and whether or not this will be the tipping point that forces NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to settle the labor dispute with the regular referees.
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?