Can Anything Good Possibly Come Out of the NFL Referee Debacle?

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Reflections on a three-week-long nightmare

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), discuss the return of the pro football refs.


Gentlemen,

Wave the Stars n' Stripes, plant a drunken kiss on an unsuspecting dental assistant in Times Square, summon the ghost of Rodney Dangerfield and fire up some Kenny Loggins: our longest national nightmare since the Dwight Howard trade threatened to out-Favre Brett Favre is finally over. After a month of preposterous calls, on-field chaos and the Seattle-Green Bay Non-Catch Heard 'Round the World, the NFL's clown college scab referees are out, banished to the Lingerie Football League wait-list from which they came, mercifully replaced by the genuine articles.

Welcome back, Ed Hochuli. Your steady hand—and U.S.S. Iowa-class guns—have been missed. Can we wash your cape?

Indeed, that may have been the biggest lesson of the NFL's disastrous—debacle-ous?—lockout of its game officials: the knowledge that the striped shirts we usually love to hate are the only thing standing between professional football as we know it and Vince McMahon's Rollerball. (They're also the only thing standing between the league as a gambling paradise and Cleveland-Baltimore as worse bet than Facebook shares). We want Hochuli on that wall. We need Hochuli on that wall. And not just to blame when things go south for our favorite teams.

Still, there were other takeaways, too. A labor union can still whip plutocratic management in a contract negotiation provided that said union has actual leverage: for one, the scab refs proved that their regular counterparts are basically irreplaceable; moreover, the regular officials are part-time employees, with other careers and income on the side, which meant that unlike recently locked-out NFL players, they could afford to walk away from the table. We learned that politicians can be pandering hypocrites—more precisely: we got a refresher course—and also learned that while the league peddles its concussion lawsuits-driven, newfound concern for player safety with the Come-to-Jesus fervor of a cable televangelist, that concern does not outweigh the owners' desire to stick it to their gametime cops over a few million bucks in traditional pension payments.

Hampton, what will you remember about the referee lockout? Will it affect the NFL going forward?

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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