Like stories, sports are not simply constrained by rules, they are defined by them. What we enjoy and take from sports after the fact is, for the most part, a narrative almost indistinguishable from fictional ones we create or are entertained by, but because sports usually play out in real time the rules are inevitably more obvious to the audience. In recognition of the importance of rules, sports almost always feature officials who are charged with enforcing those rules, albeit as inconspicuously as possible. Without officials, most sports would descend into chaos in short order — as still happens from time time.
I’ve noted previously that even a simple rule change can have a big effect on the narrative of a sport. Three years ago the National Basketball Association decided to officially adopt a rule that had been in practical use for years. This new rule gave players with the ball the right to take two full steps without dribbling — which, given the stride-length of many NBA players, effectively allowed them to go from the perimeter to the basket without putting the ball on the floor. This, in turn, has had a commensurate positive effect on scoring, which the audience enjoys.
This year the NBA instituted a new rule about so-called flopping — the intentional faking of a foul so as to cause officials to charge the opposing player with an infraction that player did not in fact commit. The new rule is designed to punish players who routinely flop, a move necessitated by the fact that flopping has eroded the integrity of the game and the authority of NBA officials. (Even though there are three officials covering each NBA game the players know those officials can’t see everything. Fans and the media, however, often have clear evidence of a flop, particularly when an instant replay is shown. No sport can survive that kind of routine and objective breakdown at the officiating level, as waning public interest in Major League Baseball’s arbitrary and often incompetent officiating continues to demonstrate.)
In the past year I also commented on the fact that the NFL had to change a few existing rules that were eroding the appeal of its product. Specifically, the time-honored tradition of allowing defensive players to physically cripple offensive players had to be revised because of new evidence that all those “great hits” were leading to things like “brain damage” and “slow, agonizing, premature death” after players retired. While these rule changes were made in part to minimize the amount of money the league will inevitably have to to pay for crippling and killing its own employees, the changes were also necessary to protect the audience from feeling queasy about enjoying what had become undeniable if not unconscionable brutality. Even in this example, however, where outside information (medical data) intruded on the sport, all it took to solve the problem and support the medium were simple changes in the rules.
Now, contrast the above examples with what the NFL did at the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, because what the league did then affected the medium of sports itself, yet nobody at the time had any inkling of what that portended. Let me repeat that. Despite decades of experience working in or covering professional sports, all of the people who caused the problem, and all of the people in the media who commented on the problem, had no understanding of what was happening even as events unfolded week by week.
In order to properly frame this carnage, there are a few things you should know about the NFL. It is an entertainment business. It is controlled by the owners of the individual teams that make up the league, and managed by a commissioner who works for the owners. NFL owners are first and foremost in the business of making money, and as such, like businesses everywhere, NFL owners use every means at their disposal to profit from their collective and individual brands, including, particularly, the force of law. By virtue of their collective and individual success, NFL owners are also, in the aggregate, some of the most arrogant people you will ever come across, even when they prove to be routinely wrong about everything.
It’s also worth noting that the NFL has waged a successful, disciplined, multi-decade campaign to establish itself as the premier sporting cabal in America. Taking in billions of dollars each year, the NFL is cash-rich and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. It is perhaps not surprising then, that at the beginning of the 2012 season the NFL decided to lock out its regular union officials as a means of compelling those crews to accept the league’s new contract offer. With no competing market for the services of those officials a lockout would necessarily mean lost wages until the new contract was signed. Still, in anticipation of the possibility that the union referees might not sign the new deal by the time the season started, the NFL arranged for replacement/scab officials so no games would be lost. When questions were raised about whether the replacements/scabs would be able to officiate NFL games the league was unequivocal in asserting that there would be no drop-off in the quality of officiating. This was the first of many claims the league made that turned out to be, at best, wildly incorrect.
The NFL Owners vs. Sports as a Medium
During the first week of NFL games this year it was obvious to everyone that the replacement/scab refs were struggling not only to officiate player conduct, but to manage the games as officials are required to do. The League’s official response was that there was no drop-off in the quality of officiating. The response of the symbiotic (if not sycophantic) media was that there might have been a drop-off, but it didn’t matter because there were no games in which the outcome was provably the result of officiating incompetence. Given that sports are usually about winning and losing this response was understandable, but it also had the effect of both narrowing and predetermining the conversation going forward. In one single week decades of successful branding suddenly devolved to a single question. Would the replacement refs directly affect the outcome of a game?
During the second week of games the replacement/scab referees continued to struggle. The media’s response, again, was that no games were actually decided by the faltering refs, although in some cases this assertion was arguable. The league’s evolving position was that there was still no problem, but even if there was the replacement/scab refs would improve over time, perhaps even to the point of making the regular referees expendable. While this rhetoric was obviously advantageous to the league’s ongoing contract negotiations with the regular referees, it had the unintended consequence of forcing fans and many in the media to either accept what the league was saying or accept what their own eyes were telling them — which was that the replacement/scab refs were not up to the job.
Aiding in this determination, albeit unintentionally, were the league’s players and coaches, who, in only two short weeks, came to realize that the replacement/scab refs had little or no control of the games. Like wild-west rowdies in a town with a weak marshal, or high school students in a room with a substitute teacher, players and coaches started engaging in on-field confrontations that the regular refs would have flagged reflexively, but the replacement/scab refs were incapable of controlling. Again, fans and the media recognized these on-field changes as dramatic and widespread, even as the league insisted that the replacements/scabs had things under control. The league then undermined this assertion by taking the unprecedented step of sending letters to the coaches and players, reminding them to be nice to the replacements/scabs, or else.
In short, in only two weeks, the NFL owners completely discredited themselves in the eyes of every human on the face of the earth. The only thing keeping the situation from disintegrating completely was that the replacement referees/scabs had not, beyond all doubt, directly affected the outcome of a game. The general level of officiating was appalling, but the league and the media could still argue that it was bad for everyone and thus no more determinative than inclement weather or a power outage. Too, the consensus from media voices commenting on the underlying labor dispute was that nothing would change as long as the league was still making money, and it was clear despite the terrible officiating that fans were still attending games and watching on TV.
As the third week of games approached a few savvy members of the media did begin to focus on the dissonance between what the league was saying and what was actually happening on the field. One of the unsettling conclusions they reached was that some fans might be tuning into games not to see football played at its highest levels, but to enjoy the schadenfreude on display. When the third Sunday of games continued the same downward trajectory in officiating despite the league’s warning letters and bureaucratic denials, league claims that the replacement/scab refs would improve over time were proved staggeringly wrong to everyone. Still, apologists continued to insist that there were no games in which the outcome was determined by the incompetence of the replacement/scab refs, so there was no problem.
Then came the nationally televised Monday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, during which the replacement/scab referees got a last-second call so egregiously wrong that it erroneously determined the outcome of that game. Not only was the correct call obvious, in real time, to anyone watching the game, the replacements/scabs still failed to make the right call even with the advantage of multiple opportunities to confer and employ video review before making a final determination. The team that officially won had in reality lost because the replacement/scab refs made the wrong call, which meant there was no longer anywhere for the NFL and its media minions to hide.
But note: the idea that what really mattered was determining the outcome of each game was always a smokescreen. During the first three weeks of the NFL season many people attempted to explain away the failings of the replacement/scabs by pointing to famously bad calls made by regular officiating crews in prior years, but no one had ever asserted that the regular officials were infallible. It’s a given in any sport that referees make mistakes, and that at times those mistakes will prove determinative. The question with the replacement/scab refs was not whether they would make mistakes, but whether they could maintain the sport of professional football as a medium and they proved they could not. Which is why, after the Monday Night Football game in which the Green Bay Packers had a victory stolen from them by poor officiating, the roof caved in — but not in a way that anyone predicted.
The assumption on the part of the league and the media was that the league would only feel compelled to settle its labor dispute with the regular referees if the dispute was costing them money. While it’s understandable that businesses measure success relative to profitability, what neither the league nor the media anticipated was that the NFL audience was as willing to watch football as a reality show documenting the disintegration of a famous national brand as they were to believe in football as a form of entertainment purporting to possess some deep connection with national identity. In fact, the more the league turned itself into a joke, the more people were interested in watching that joke play out.
In only three weeks — three weeks — everything the media and the NFL itself thought about professional football as a spectator sport was proven utterly wrong. Decades of branding and drum-banging nationalism and authoritarian control on the part of ownership proved to be worthless, and the relationship between money and the vaunted product the NFL put on the field proved to be nonexistent. In what must have been a particularly riveting shock to everyone who truly believed in the manufactured sanctity of the NFL, the narrative power of sports was seamlessly replaced with the narrative medium of reality television, and the greater NFL audience seemed to be fine with that.
And why wouldn’t they, when the only alternative was to go insane and believe that the ownership of the NFL was a rational and upstanding bunch of establishment heroes fighting a necessary fight against a rag-tag bunch of ungrateful union referees who thought they could push the NFL around? Which brings us to the punchline of this whole affair. Like a group of banana-republic despots determined to squeeze a few more bananas out of a beleaguered populace, the entire debacle that became NFL football at the beginning of this season came about because NFL owners refused to cough up the equivalent of couch change to settle the issue before the season began. Relative to what the NFL is worth, not only was the difference between the NFL and the union officials peanuts, but the arrogant ownership was perfectly willing to risk its only product in pursuit of that small amount of money while still charging everyone full price for a pale imitation of its only product. Again, the NFL could have had regular refs on the field from day one even though the dispute wasn’t settled, but that wasn’t good enough. They had to lock the regular refs out and prove who was boss.
Not since the introduction of New Coke has a corporation voluntarily applied this much egg to its own face. Unlike the Coca-Cola company, however, there’s no chance the NFL can spin its decision-making as anything other than a debacle. And not simply because the league suddenly settled its labor dispute with the regular referees only a few days after the Monday Night game, proving that whatever disagreement the league and the union refs had it wasn’t worth the lock-out in the first place. What also became clear was that there were only two possible reasons the NFL would have insisted that the replacement/scab refs were just as good as union refs, and neither of those reasons was flattering.
Given the NFL’s history of bargaining ruthlessly with everyone from the players to the networks carrying its product, the default assumption has to be that the NFL knew full well the replacement referees would not be able to perform at the same level as the regular officials. Because of the speed, sophistication and complexity of the professional game, it would be a lot to ask any football official from a lower level of competition to step in and officiate NFL contests, no matter how inherently capable they might be. Whatever else you might want to say about them, the NFL’s owners are not stupid people, which makes it almost impossible to imagine that they did not plan for every possible contingency when they decided to lock out the union referees. Throw in the fact that both sides in any legal dispute will usually engage in a great deal of bluster, disinformation and saber rattling, and the NFL’s consistent statement of support for its obviously incompetent replacement/scab referees seems consistent with the legal negotiations ongoing at the time, even if it was also undeniably at odds with reality.
This seems particularly true in light of that fact that the only other possibility is that the league’s owners had no idea that what they were about to do would undermine the very conception of the medium they all profited by. And yet, in looking at how the entire disaster played out, I can only conclude that that is in fact exactly what happened. Despite every advantage in knowing their business inside and out, I think the NFL’s ownership not only underestimated the unique and important expertise and judgment of the officials that regularly moderate NFL games, I think they lacked a fundamental understanding of what it would mean to weaken on-field authority in pursuit of chump change at the bargaining table.
I don’t think any sane business person would knowingly risk what the NFL ended up risking, yet we know from history that this kind of thing happens all the time. The people at the top of the food chain routinely become so divorced from reality and so insulated by the echo chamber around them that they come to believe in their own infallibility. If the NFL is stocked to the rafters with very smart people, it is also stocked to the rafters with arrogant people who live in an a completely sealed bubble of success. Yes, professional football has to compete with other entertainment options for consumer eyeballs, but the reality is that there is nobody even close to the NFL in terms of sports dominance in America. They are the big gorilla in the room, and almost every other sport and entertainment industry pays attention to their calendar so as not to be bigfooted by the NFL’s appeal. (Did you know the NFL is legally prohibited by an act of Congress from playing games on Friday and Saturday during football season? Why? Because doing so would obliterate high school and college football attendance.)
If there was ever a sports league that was ripe for a let-them-eat-cake moment it was the NFL ownership in 2012. Whatever marketing plans they’ve executed over the years, including, for decades, celebrating the same body-destroying physical collisions they are now enacting rules to prevent, whatever winks and nudges they share behind closed doors when they win another ratings race or set another revenue record, there comes a point at which people in positions of power inevitably begin to believe their own hype. Not surprisingly, that’s usually also the point at which those same people decide they don’t need anybody else to help them be great or stay great because they’re inherently great.
Civilizations break down when the rule of law breaks down. In the case of the NFL, the first people to become aware of the power vacuum when the replacement/scab refs took the field were the players. Again, it took only two weeks before the unruly behavior of the players toward the replacement/scab refs forced the league’s administrative overlords to send out a royal warning. That, in turn, became de facto confirmation to everyone that the NFL’s overlords were themselves struggling to maintain the rule of law on the field.
I have no doubt that a certain amount of confidence is necessary to accomplish almost anything. And if how you measure success is by counting nickels it follows that confident people will probably do better in business over time. But there’s a difference between being confident and cocky, and I don’t think there’s any question that the NFL ownership was feeling pretty cocky about locking out the regular referees and putting a bunch of chumps in their place. Because in the entire history of humanity I can’t think of a single instance where a leader volunteered to be mocked and exposed as a blithering idiot in exchange for some nebulous and minimal long-term financial advantage. It’s beyond question that the decisions of the NFL owners made them all look like fools, and I don’t think that’s the kind of thing that arrogant and egotistical people do on purpose. They do it by accident all the time, but not on purpose.
Given their high-flying lifestyles and the number of people who are expressly paid to make sure NFL owners feel like special people, I don’t expect them to learn from this experience. What’s clear to me, however, and should be clear to you if you enjoy professional football, is that when it comes to the integrity of the game nobody matters more than the referees. Not the owners, not the players, and not the NFL brand they call “the shield”. If the referees aren’t good — if they cannot adjudicate and enforce the rules system of professional football — then everything else is rendered meaningless in the medium we call sports. You can have all the great athletes you want, and all of the excitement inherent in any competition, and you can even make tons of money along the way, but if the people who enforce the rules of the game aren’t up to the task then what you’ve got is either the theatrical equivalent of professional wrestling or mob rule.
— Mark Barrett