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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine, and is author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love

September 24th, 2012 2:44 PM

NFL Scab Referees and the Return of TV Bloopers

Crossposted from The Nation

As a child, my family owned just one lonely Zenith-brand television with no remote and no cable box. My fearsome big sister controlled the set under threat of violence and would subject me to the lowest form of entertainment: bloopers. Shows like TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes or its sad network competition Foul-Ups, Bleeps, and Blunders—which was co-hosted, amazingly, by Don Rickles—blared throughout our house and like a squat, Jewish Scarlett O’Hara, I swore I would never watch such dreck again.

But now the National Football League owners and their Commissioner Roger Goodell, in their infinite greed, have returned the blooper show to the airwaves with the weekly hijinks of their stumbling, bumbling, scab referees. The lockout of union refs has turned the nation’s Sunday NFL ritual into a profane farce. You could look at it as a living argument for the importance of trained union labor, or like a dangerous practical joke: a group of Sacha Baron Cohens in black and white stripes poking at fans and players to see just how much they’ll take before they snap.

Yesterday we were served the spectacle of 49er coach Jim Harbaugh berating some meek scab into giving him both an extra challenge flag and an additional timeout. Then there was the sight of the referee who threw his hat on the field of play, causing receiver Kevin Ogletree to step on it and slip awkwardly in the end zone. Fortunately, his knee ligaments remained attached. But this was all high comedy compared to seeing helmet-to-helmet hits go unregulated, Bill Belichick physically accosting an official and 70,000 fans in Baltimore chanting “bullsh*t” in unison for a solid minute. The owners might want to note that it’s only funny until the peasants grab pitchforks.

Then there are the announcers who with few exceptions talk about these foul-ups, bleeps and blunders like Roger Goodell has electrodes attached to their nether-regions, ready to zap at the slightest critique. In the game I was watching most intently, Washington against the Cincinnati Bengals, it felt like I was viewing Soviet state television. Replays weren’t shown to the television audience after missed calls; commercial breaks would cut in rather than dwell on errant whistles; and worst of all, when mentioned, the announcers would speak reverently of the struggles of “replacement referees.” Calling these scabs “replacement referees” is like calling a befouled outhouse a “replacement toilet.” Scour across every minute of every broadcast and the word “scab” is going unuttered. To call them otherwise is like calling a flasher in Central Park a “penile exposure expert.” Their very existence on this elevated cultural plane degrades all labor, organized or not. Their incompetence is an affront to fans and an actual physical danger to players.

The light at the end of the tunnel, however, is that the NFL Players Association is finally being proactive in trying to end this. On September 20 the NFLPA Executive Committee, which includes current players like Drew Brees and Charlie Batch, sent a scathing letter addressed to the owners of NFL teams where they said, in part:

Your decision to lock out officials with more than 1,500 years of collective NFL experience has led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity. This affirmative decision has not only resulted in poor calls, missed calls and bad game management, but the combination of those deficiencies will only continue to jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game that has taken decades to build.… The headlines are embarrassing: a scab working a game despite having been on the payroll of one of the teams, another who was assigned to referee a team he publicly supported on Facebook, and one who is a professional poker player when you propose even more stringent player rules on gambling.… We are all men who love and respect this game and believe that it represents something beyond just money. For our teammates, our coaches and our fans who deserve better, vote to end this lockout now.

This letter represents an escalation in the NFLPA’s rhetoric and direct involvement in the lockout. The next step would be if the players announce that they would not take the field if scabs are also there to officiate. Such a move would end the lockout faster than RG III’s forty-yard sprint-time. Critics will say that a secondary strike might not be legal. Perhaps, but allowing players to put their health in the hands of such incompetents isn’t ethical and the NFLPA has a specific charge to safeguard the safety of the players. They are also the only force in the game capable of ending the madness. We could organize a historic fan boycott 1,000,000 strong and it wouldn’t even make a micro-dent in the NFL’s profit margins. But if only two players on each team, the offensive and defensive captains, held a ten-minute press conference saying that the lockout has to end or no more football, then it would end. They would also be showing the bosses who’s boss. It’s time for a secondary-strike so we can quickly move beyond what is quickly becoming one of the darker chapters in NFL history. Please do it, before someone really gets hurt.

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