Replacement Referees and the Violation of Justice

How the scandal surrounding the replacement refs and their abysmal performance has shed light on our inherent desire for justice.

Now that NFL referees have a contract, calm has returned to America’s most popular sport. We can talk about other things, like the resurgence of Carson Palmer or the impending success of Tim Tebow (just kidding). Most people view the first several weeks of the season as a period best forgotten.

“…after this email, I am taking myself to bed. As a die hard, lifelong football fan, I for one am taking a 2-3 week break from this nonsense. This is not true football, not how I remember watching it the past 28 years of my life.”
Nick, Hopkinsville, KY

When the replacement refs inevitably began making mistakes, we began showing our true colors.  That’s why throughout this column, I’ve mixed in some of the comments people actually made on Bill Simmons’ website (www.grantland.com) about the replacement refs.

The trouble began when the NFL and the referee’s union were unable to come to a contract agreement. This led to the referees going on strike. To keep on schedule, the NFL hastily brought in teams of replacement referees. These replacements were mediocre and impressively unqualified for the job they were doing.

As the season unfolded, they began making mistakes. Lots of them. They were often confused. They were easily influenced by players complaining or coaches arguing. They slowed the pace of the game, taking long periods of time to straighten out basic problems. In short, the longer they were on the field, the more the bargaining power of the real referees grew.

I’m feeling something I’ve never felt before. I’ve never been cheated on (that I’m aware of), but I imagine that is what it must feel like. A cocktail of anger, regret, the feeling of being taken for granted, and self loathing for wasting my time. The officiating is a disgrace to the league.
David, DC

The actual weakness of the refs, though, played second fiddle to the incredible vitriol of the reaction among players, coaches, and especially fans. People became more and more angry as they perceived referee incompetence hurting their favorite team’s chances of victory. Players and coaches spoke out, and were promptly fined. Sports radio and websites were flooded with messages demanding that the NFL back down and get the real referees back.

Then came the real doozy. On a Monday Night Football game, the last play was a game-deciding throw into the end zone. It appeared to be both a penalty on the offensive player, which went uncalled, and an interception by the defensive player. In fact, one referee signaled to that effect. But the other one signaled the exact opposite, and the touchdown was eventually given to the receiver on the basis of a one-armed “tie” catch. The sports-watching world promptly went ballistic. If you are a fan of sports, and especially of the Packers, you probably did too.

I literally cannot believe what I just witnessed. That total screw job had to earn a new Level of Losing for Packers fans. And that was just the cherry atop the ice cream sundae of inanity that was Week 3 in replacement refereeing. To have the final result of a MNF game, the crown jewel of the weekly NFL schedule, involving one of the premier franchises in the league, get botched like that, is just unforgivable.
Ryan Flippo, Tulsa

This leads me to a question: Why are poor calls so infuriating?

Let’s remember that the NFL is purely about entertainment. It does not manufacture a physical product. It does not develop the future leaders of America. It does not help reduce the national debt, and it does not use excess funds to expand educational institutions. Aside from basic charity work, it just entertains.

I LOVE the replacement refs! This week has been so entertaining. KEEP THE SCABS! KEEP THE SCABS! KEEP THE SCABS!
Pete, Minneapolis

Given that pro football is essentially televised entertainment, think about the incompetence we put up with already. We watch television shows that are poorly written. We suspend disbelief for plot holes and nonsensical interactions in movies. We choose to believe in an array of characters whose capabilities are fundamentally impossible and whose solutions are even more so. We listen to artists who make bad music (or, as is so often the case, didn’t even make their own music).

Further, we watch, “reality,” shows that thrive on incompetence. We can’t pull our eyes away from poor relational choices, habitual lying, and difficult circumstances. When we see TV lineups that include The Bachelor, Honey Boo Boo Child, and Kitchen Nightmares, it should clue us in to the fact that we find incompetence and inconsistent rules entertaining.

“Let’s put all the replacement refs in one house until the negotiations are resolved. ‘This is the true story… of ten Division II college football referees… forced to live in a house… work together in a job for which they are severely underqualified and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when Roger Goodell stops caring about the quality of NFL games … and the referees start getting incompetent… The Real World.’”
Matt, Woodbridge, VA

We are patient with all these things, so why not football? Why do we have such a high standard in this one category? Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it’s probably because sports function as a sort of, “oasis of justice,” in our minds. It is the one place where everything seems fair.

Every day we face a world that feels random and chaotic. We work hard at our jobs, only to discover that the taller and better-looking employee got the promotion. We scrimp and save, only to find out that irresponsible risk-takers capitalized on their bets. We plod along, fulfilling our responsibilities, while the media blasts images of people with more money, more fun, and fewer hassles in their lives than we can possibly imagine.

But when we watch football, we get to choose a side and then watch a direct correlation between smarts, effort, and teamwork on the one hand and results on the other. When our team wins, it is true cause for celebration because the victory feels justified. We are stronger, we are smarter, we tried harder. When we lose, it is motivation to do better next time, but there is usually little reason to feel cheated. On the whole, sports give us a place where each is rewarded according to his due.

That element of sports sets it apart in our minds. When we watch reality shows it is funny. But when we watch a football game it is, in a secular sense, sacred. It is, in a secular sense, holy. When the world comes to a football game, it comes to worship in a temple where one of our most natural human desires, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” is satisfied. We are protective of the, “fairness,” of the game because it is an escape from the unfairness of life.

The replacement refs, in their way, undermined that. They made us feel like this pure and beautiful oasis was becoming arbitrary and untrustworthy in the way that our lives are. And if there is one thing our fallen natures cannot accept, it is the idea that life with all its foibles and imperfections is just.

I have no problem with the game returning to normal, or with players whose entire lives are devoted to football being judged fairly, or with complaints about the referee situation coming to an end. I want that.

But I also want for us all to reflect on the amazing emotional attachment we have to justice and fair play. It speaks of our connection to our Creator, whose sense of justice is far more thorough and pervading than our own. It reminds us that our world is imperfect, and needs something greater to restore the way things should be.

Further, even as we pass angry judgment on replacement referees, I want to note how blind we are to the amazing injustice of our own sinful lives in relation to the world God originally gave us. We think football is an escape from a life that is unfair to us, but really we are the ones whose actions are wrong. In some sense, we are the replacement referees, invested with all the tools and authority to succeed but failing continually. We are the unjust ones, and in screaming at the unjust failures of referees, we condemn ourselves tenfold.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.


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