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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Are you ready for some NFL replacement referees football?

On Wednesday night, a brand new NFL season will be uncorked when the opening kickoff of the Giants and Cowboys takes place. That is, if you don’t count the fact that the NFL apparently never ends, with inexorable coverage delving into the minutiae that is the offseason and a pregame analysis of the opening kickoff that begins shortly after the Super Bowl ends.

The fans will return, sporting team colors on their accessories and various appendages (no questions asked). The pageantry will once again be on display, and the players will come bursting out of the tunnels with the fervor of a “Price is Right” contestant on a Plinko-rush.

However, you will apparently not be seeing Ed Hochuli anytime soon. The NFL referees’ answer to Lou Ferrigno and his compatriots will not be on the field in the near future. Since early June, the NFL has locked out its referees, unable to come to an agreement on such issues as salary, retirement benefits, and other issues not exciting enough to merit mention in this humble prose. Suffice it to say that these men of the striped cloth are adamant about the same issues that sportswriters are, though the latter usually cave with a compromise of a gift card from Long John Silver’s.

The first time you see a flag tonight, it won’t be the mellifluent Mike Carey, the authoritative Tony Corrente, or the once-bulldozed, twice shy Jeff Triplette, but rather one of many previously anonymous referees (saying a lot) that will be working pro football games for the time being.

The topic of referees is never an easy subject on which to discourse. Even in the best of times, one team and their devoted following are none-too-pleased at the call being made. The others are spent absorbing blows from the players themselves as in the case of Triplette, who discovered what (Orlando) Brown could do TO you. An Internet search yields the definition of referee as a blind person who makes calls in a game.

Even folks who are apathetic about the sport look down on referees, envisioning a very dogmatic individual with a whistle, not unlike the once-feared P.E. teacher who would get on you in grade school to run laps with his booming baritone. Unbeknownst to us then, the teacher’s built-up anger was merely a byproduct of having been passed over for a promotion at his night job at Arby’s.

Lockouts and labor stoppages have certainly become a part of sports culture. For crying out loud, the NBA and NFL went through one last year, and it looks like hockey might be headed for one with Mr. Burns’ alter-ego Don Fehr running the league’s players union. In the eyes of the fans, players aren’t so easily replaced. Officials, though, don’t get their own fantasy leagues.

It might be difficult to quantify the Nielsen Ratings drop-off that will occur when college and high school referees take the field beginning Wednesday night. Perhaps six, possibly seven people, will turn off their television sets in a show of solidarity with the displaced referees, or because they happened to roll over onto the remote at an inopportune time. Nevertheless, expect to see some miscues.

If the preseason was any guide, there could be plenty of bloopers ahead. A sampling of some recent games yielded mistimed flags; a referee who reviewed a play compiled his thoughts and then was speechless at the mike; and an official who signaled a touchback on a kickoff that landed well short of the endzone, giving credence to the aforementioned definition.

Sure, there have been some noteworthy stories to come out of the situation that have not been chalked up to mere buffoonery, such as Shannon Eastin, who became the first female to officiate an NFL game. However, there may be some withdrawal symptoms beginning this week when bare-chested fans (normally spotted in line at the DMV) will have their blood-curdling screams interrupted by Gene Steratore’s oratory. Instead, viewers around the country will perhaps be subjected to performances inspired by Bill Pitman, of Saturday Night Live acclaim.

There will certainly be some jitters for these refs. Signaling offsides is a little more intimidating when done before a national audience of millions. A chop block could cause some poor schlub to be put on the chopping block himself. Now might be a good time for this weekend’s referees to make sure they don’t throw their penalty flags into the spin cycle with their white shirts: That could be cause for a blogosphere meltdown.

Also, an all-points bulletin should be released to remind referees to keep a whistle on their person at all times. Those things have been known to disappear in to a hard-to-find spot in the jungles of the sock drawer. Oh, and remember to wear the right hat. The lead official needs to wear a white hat. Tapout hats are usually not acceptable uniform material.

The lockout between the NFL and its regular refereeing posse has now dragged on for three months. The two sides are still about $3 million apart on the thorny issue of salary. It is probably a good thing that most of these men have second jobs to feed their arbitrary jones, like lawyers, teachers, and Walmart store greeters. These professions will certainly help fill the void left by not being able to adjudicate on Sundays in the near future. Until then, the next crop of the best and brightest to wear the stripes (this side of Foot Locker) will get to strut their stuff.

It’s only a matter of hours before the lights come back on and the NFL regular season returns. Get ready for the first kickoff, the first big hit, and the first touchdown. If you’re looking for the first fumble, you may want to keep your eye on the refs.



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