FRONDORF: Goodbye, replacement refs

“I will remember you. Will you remember me?” said no one about the NFL replacement referees, as the league finally made a deal last week to bring the professional crews back on the field.

Considering a popular YouTube “in memoriam” video set highlights of the replacements’ greatest bloopers against the weepy Sarah McLachlan song of ASPCA fame, maybe we actually will remember the three weeks of scab-dom for a quite a while — just not in the same way McLachlan wants us to feel about those unloved puppies.

We’ll remember the phantom flags, the potential for corruption (one ref was on the Seahawks payroll and then worked a Seattle game), the incredulous coaches and, of course, the game-changing debacles. As a lover of this kind of made-for-TV spectacle, I enjoyed the chaos while it lasted. But it’s good to have everything back to normal, both for the hard-working referees who were on strike and for the integrity of the rest of the season.

Admittedly, when the whole saga began, I didn’t think having replacement refs was a big deal. Sure, there were insignificant moments of incompetence here and there, but the games were still being played and the outcomes generally seemed fair. In fact, I thought the fill-ins got way too much flak from the media and football fans. Every week during the regular season, even with regular referees, some fan base gets riled up about one call or another, alleging that this call or that call lost the game for their team of choice. Referees have always been (and will continue to be) the classic scapegoat for dejected fans. For the first few weeks of the 2012 NFL season, these blame-shifters just had more ammo. Your grandfather argued, “The Cowboys lost because of those gosh-darn scabs,” and blogs had a field day compiling every single mistake by the replacement refs.

At the time, I wholeheartedly believed that the “real” crews made just as many mistakes — the replacements were just under such extreme scrutiny that each and every single flaw was revealed. They became the target of analysis and criticism usually reserved for the players on the field. I didn’t think it was fair to the “scabs,” who were people just like your neighbor or uncle: a high school coach, a hometown fan or a former college player. The anger should have been directed at the NFL, not the men (and woman) filling in.

So I didn’t think too much about the replacement refs for the first few weeks — much better to focus on the teams themselves. But, as it always seems to go, the problem had to boil over before I realized the refs were hampering the game. A shoe left in the hallway isn’t a problem until you trip over it; a glitch in the latest Call of Duty game doesn’t matter until people start to exploit it. In this case, the replacement refs were a non-issue until an error decided a nationally televised game on the very last play. I am, of course, talking about last Monday’s Packers-Seahawks fiasco, where Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate was judged to have caught a Hail Mary pass in the end zone to win the game for Seattle. Media and fans around the country cried foul, claiming that Packers safety M.D. Jennings had intercepted the throw, which would have clinched the win for Green Bay.

I won’t belabor this well-trodden event any further, but it was the perfect storm — America was watching on Monday night, the game hinged on the final play and the judgment was made inefficiently and without unanimity. The defining image of the replacement officials’ tenure will always be that final moment of the Green Bay-Seattle game, with one judge signaling touchback and the other signaling touchdown as players scuffled for the ball. (Don’t believe me? Just Google “replacement refs” and it’s the very first image.)

Okay, so there was a refereeing problem. The stats back it up: according to TicketCity, a ticket resale website, coaches called 20 more challenges in the first three weeks this year than they did in the first three weeks of the 2011 season. And once the entire country became keenly aware of the issue, the NFL quickly resolved the problem in time to bring back the trained crews for last week’s Thursday night game.

There is a silver lining from the prolonged strike: America finally gained some appreciation for its oft-attacked referees. Usually the most-disliked and least-respected employees in sports, the “real” refs were suddenly the biggest rock stars on the field. We began to realize that working a complex game under the lights and in front of millions is pretty difficult after all — and most of the time, they get things right. Referees weren’t just nameless men in stripes but guys with stories and names. Ed Hochuli and Gene Steratore became semi-household names, at least in the sports world. They aren’t middle-class workers by most stretches of the imagination — they were making an average of $149,000 a season before the lockout and will make $173,000 by 2013 as a result of their new contract. But it’s a demanding job, and they’re certainly not on the same pay scale as professional athletes.

Upon the officials’ return, the Baltimore crowd at M&T Bank Stadium gave a standing ovation to the crew working the game. Refs got high fives from fans as they came out of the tunnel. And CBS felt the need to introduce the crew for last Sunday’s Cincinnati-Jacksonville matchup with the classic “state your name and university” video used for players in big games. It was a little weird, but a nice gesture nonetheless. (Although I am disappointed that Ed Hochuli didn’t attend Terrell Suggs’ alma mater, “Ball So Hard University.”)

It was a fleeting moment of appreciation. By the end of the first half of the 1:00 p.m. games, the honeymoon was over. Fans jeered calls and commentators went back to complaining about unnecessary penalties. And a few of the three pass interference calls during the last drive of Sunday’s Giants-Eagles game were a little dubious. At least the calls were “dubious” and not blatantly incorrect. Score one for being right most of the time.

So we’ll remember you, replacement refs, for your valiant effort and unintentional humor, but “don’t let your life pass you by” waiting for a callback.

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