Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Who's on First Down, Anyway?

Players will get hurt in the opening week of the 2012 National Football League season because players get hurt every opening week (and all the other weeks). It's the nature of the sport.

Officials will blow calls in the opening week of the season because calls get blown in every opening week (and all the other weeks). That too is the nature of the sport.

Never before, however, has the NFL willfully put itself in position where many people will add up the truths in those two paragraphs and conclude they are related. That will most likely be a case of folks reaching 2 + 2 = 156,987.35. The danger for the league is, there's a chance the true answer could be four.

The lockout of NFL refs and their replacement by officials from the lower minor leagues of college football is an inexplicable business decision unless one assumes, as one must, that American superrich people have become so sociopathically devoted to power that they're willing to risk serious damage to the source of those riches. It's certainly not a move based on financial analysis of any kind.

All it'd take is one unthrown flag on a play where some star gets knocked out of the game and/or season and/or sport, and fans and most of all players, are going to assume the lockout was the cause. Peyton Manning leaving on a stretcher Sunday night would be the most perfect storm, but Tom Brady or Calvin Johnson or, hell, Tim Tebow would do almost as well. Doesn't matter if the injury came on a perfectly legal collision. The world is going to say the replacements can't keep the sport safe. The NFL cares more for nickels and dimes than the health of its players.

May not happen. The evidence of the preseason suggests the stand-in zebras will bollix up the game procedurally for sure, often in comical ways. That's not a market threat. Fans will laugh. Players will get mad, then laugh.

That the new refs might decide a game with a blown call is an unlikely possibility.  Few NFL games are so close as to be in reach of being determined by an official's decision. Most are comfortable wins and or routs where having Tim McClelland's umpiring crew all wearing their masks as officials wouldn't alter the outcome. And should it happen, well, it's happened before to union refs. To err is human, etc.

But an injury that could be blamed on a ref would be different. There's already a considerable if minority social movement in this country that football is too dangerous a sport to be played. The idea that a man got hurt because the league that employs him was too cheap to also employ the best possible adjudicators of the sport would be a crisis for the NFL way beyond the New Orleans Saints' bounty program. It might also be actionable as a matter of law. Bet some attorney would test that thesis.

Human nature suggests the stand-ins will throw fewer flags than their unionized brethren. One way to avoid making errors of commission is to stand still and do nothing. Football player and coach nature suggests both will be very quick to note that tendency and quicker still to take advantage of it. The outside of the envelope on the rules governing collisions will be tested by intrepid and vicious pioneers in violence. It's a formula for hurt.

The formula may come to nothing. Maybe the replacements will never come close to having their performance affect player safety in any way. That still doesn't alter the fact the NFL is exposing itself to a considerable risk in an effort to gain what is complete chump change to its business.

That's not good business. It's some very unpleasant personal characteristics masquerading as business.


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