Returning to the field to kick an extra point that was, to put it bluntly, completely forgotten within the hysteria of one of the most bizarre endings in recent sports history, the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers’ players and staff knew they had just become part of something bigger than one game or one nationally-televised broadcast.
On that final play, with Seattle trailing 12-7, quarterback Russell Wilson — who had incidentally called the wrong play in the huddle — scrambled to his left as time expired and rel="nofollow">lobbed a pass into the far corner of the endzone. A sea of yellow-and-white Packers enveloped the ball, but as the dust settled it became apparent that this was not your typically Hail Mary finish.
Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate, after illegally pushing one Packer defender to the ground, had managed to get a hand on the seemingly intercepted ball as he and Packers’ safety M.D. Jennings wrestled on the turf. Two officials were on the scene, but as one held up his arms to signal a touchdown while the other indicated an interception, viewers knew something was wrong. Following replay, the referees indicated that Golden Tate had, in fact, caught Russell Wilson’s desperation heave — leaving Seattle with a 13-12 lead over the heavyweight Packers with no time remaining.
Seattle’s home fans — popularly termed “The 12th Man” — roared as the Seahawks exited CenturyLink Field, while the Packers where left bewildered. In retrospect it all seemed so wrong — the illegal push, the wrong ruling even after consulting video replay (in the NFL, a tie in possession goes to the offense unless the defender had clear possession before the offensive player began to contest for control) and the perceived cluelessness of the officials throughout the game. Packer’s tight end Tom Crabtree later tweeted “the 13th man beat us tonight.”
But not only did this primetime debacle worthy of a Monday-night showcase directly cost the Packers a crucial victory; the decision has set ablaze the NFL’s current hot-button issue — the use of replacement officials amidst an NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) lockout.
For months, the NFL and NFLRA have been in a stalemate over a new labor agreement. Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners point at the referees, who currently earn an average of $149,000 for a part-time job and are demanding 7 percent pay increases and absolute job security. The NFLRA points at the owner’s multimillion-dollar profits, in addition to proposals to eliminate referee pensions and more easily replace officials based on performance. The fans have several options. Some blame the replacement officials, others point their fingers at Goodell, but perhaps the majority is disappointed in the system as a whole.
And that’s where things get messy, because we the fans are part of that system. Demand for NFL has remained as high as ever with an average stadium of 65,000 fans per game and healthy viewership and merchandise sales. For those who follow the NFL — will you actually boycott the games because of the quality of officiating? Simply put, despite criticisms that the referee lockout is ruining the sanctity of the game — and it is, the NFL has no incentive to bag the current replacement officials.
Fans can point fingers at whomever the choose, but in the end the consumers ultimately in charge as the NFL will only respond once it believes that consumer activity will change in a way detrimental to the league. This isn’t exactly a players’ strike — fans won’t jump ship for a modern-day USFL just because it hires locked out higher quality officials. The owners have a moral obligation to fans, but sometimes that doesn’t mean much when money and long-term labor contracts are involved.
Like the Packers, we the fans are held captive by the current NFL officiating dispute. But, just as a team must take advantage of opportunities regardless of officiating, fans must realize that the quality of the NFL product will not improve unless they hold it to a higher standard — and that is not always easy to do.