The National Football League needs to concede to the demands of its professional referees now — before someone gets hurt and before the soul of the game is compromised. And the NFL's silent partners — the big TV networks, like ESPN, NBC and CBS — need to pressure them to give in.
Players are beginning to game the relative incompetence of the replacement refs. They are taking more risks. They seem to have lost confidence in a group of men (and one woman) who had very little credibility with them to begin with. Fans can accept the idea and even the reality of replacement refs until games are blown and players start getting hurt and football quarters last an hour. That's happening.
Last night, during ESPN's Monday Night Denver vs. Atlanta match-up, it took six minutes for a play to be sorted out. The refs got the call wrong in the end.
The league is used to getting its way, and even though referee costs make up a fraction of 1 percent of its budget, the league believes that the referees are using their monopoly to seek money they really don't need and pensions that no one else gets. Why should these refs — who work only part-time — be special?
Well, that's because they are. The NFL made them special. An NFL referee does more than simply enforce the rules of the game. He controls the field. He has the confidence of both teams, who know that they had better not play dirty or sloppy, lest they be penalized immediately. He has been invested with the NFL's own integrity. The more crisp a game is, the more credit a referee is due. Now, the NFL even asks its referees to determine whether a player ought to be examined by medical staff.
It's not too much to say that the referee is the avatar of the NFL's institutional values. Maybe that shouldn't affect a labor dispute, but as of this weekend, it is clear that the integrity of the NFL's product has been degraded. Forget the blown calls, which have been increasing in frequency. Integrity questions alone should haunt NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who is obsessed with that value. Two incidents this week, including one where an official told a player he was on his fantasy football team, are troubling. The fights and potential player injuries are frightening. Goodell risks his games turning into concussion-filled brawls.
NFL ratings are up. If that's the only metric the league really cares about, its critics are out of luck. That's why ESPN, with its outsized power in the sports business world, needs to take a stand, along with the three networks that broadcast the Sunday games.
Why? It's the right thing to do.