Saturday, September 08, 2012

There But For the Grace of God

Doesn't matter what sport you like to participate in or watch. Odds are at some point you've let your Walter Mitty mind take over, and wondered what it would be like to be on the court or the field or the pitch. Sure, you mused to yourself, Tiger or Eli or Serena are pros and play all the time. But considering the fact that I golf or hit or serve only on weekends, I'm not really that bad. And how cool would it be if I got the chance to step out on the field with them, and show them just how good I am.

That's why millions were so smitten with the writings of George Plimpton. In books like "Paper Lion," Plimpton rose from his Barcalounger to try his hand with the best. He tried tennis, baseball, even boxing, giving life to daydreamers everywhere. And while he never stuck around for more than a play or sequence or two, he usually exited to applause, as the audience indicated its appreciation of his attempt if not his mastery.

Contrast that with the treatment being given to a class of people being given a similar opportunity. As of this writing, the National Football League is engaged in a contract dispute with the NFL Referees Association, and has locked out the regular officials. And so, as they have been doing throughout the August warm-ups, replacements are set to be on the field when the season kicks off for the year.

Normally we would root for the underdog, for the guy or girl who struggles gamely at the lower levels, then through an accident of fate or chance gets a chance to perform and wow them on the biggest stage. And officiating is, at its heart, really no different from any other endeavor. Individuals start in the lower ranks, pay their dues and work their way up from high school to college to semi-pro and on to the elite. While things there might a) move faster, b)the players might be bigger, c)there's more on the line, or more likely, d) all of the above, the basic skills needed and judgment exercised are the same.  

However, in this case, the best understudies weren't available. Those just below the top, those who ref at the elite college levels, have commitments in place to do just that. Also, those same individuals likely harbor designs a continued upward trajectory, and so don't see any point in pissing off the very people with whom they'd like to be working in the future. And so they have sat this one out, effectively forcing the league to go a bit further afield as it looks for replacement zebras.

That means that the stand-ins have been down a level or two, as opposed to the kind of top level performers you might usually have hovering in the wings. And that has led to predictions of disaster, and the snarkiest kind of chatter. Much of this was driven by mistakes made by the replacements themselves in the preseason. After all, it might have been a case of nerves, but in the very first exhibition game of 2012, referee Craig Ochoa announced that New Orleans won the coin toss. Except Arizona did. He immediately made the correction, but the tone was set. And the first criticisms pointed out not that Ochoa had Big Ten experience, but that he had officiated in the Lingerie Football League.

Subsequent errors have been as benign as a ref facing the wrong way from the cameras when announcing a penalty, and as consequential as turnovers disallowed. With the standings and the road to post-season on the line, as well as millions of dollars, it's hardly a trivial matter. Still, it would be nice if fans, coaches and players would give these guys a break. It may be just because the league forbid its members from criticizing the officiating, but at least Andy Reid, the coach of the Eagles, had the decency to say, "They're trying their hearts out."

So until the dispute is settled, games may take a little longer, calls will be questioned and there will be some errors. But as Reid says, it's not for lack of trying. And for anyone who ever thought that they could do better, take notice of what's happening. And recognize that maybe you'd be best to go get another beer, have a seat, shut up and just be happy you're not a target.


Marc Wollin of Bedford feels for the replacements. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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