The Return of OUR Referees, and An Odd Case of Consensus

These days, we don’t agree on much.

In our rising time of partisanship and fanaticism, of opinions analyzed and shifting on an hourly – nay, minute-by-minute – basis, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a large group of people to agree on anything at all.

…that is, except for how fucking horrible those NFL Replacement Referees were.

I say ‘were,’ because finally, mercifully – thank the lord – the union men have come home and sent those awful scabs packing, rescuing our true National Pastime from the one thing (gambling fraud) that might have knocked it off its money-churning pedestal.

And guess what? We did it. Sports fans came together and got our guys back, saving football forever – or at least until the next labor deal expires.

But our efforts weren’t fulfilled easily, and for a long time, it looked like they would be in vain.

No matter how many journalists whined ( ran 29 stories on replacement refs from their first game on September 6th to their last on September 23rd), or no matter how many fans tweeted their disgust (surely, hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of 140-word complaints were sent out over the same time frame), the corporate behemoth would end up getting what it wanted, like it always does. How could we ever expect Goodell’s goliath to fall at the hands of a few million pissed off fans and a few dozen pension-seeking employees?

In reality, we didn’t: We were told time and time again that it didn’t matter how upset everyone was. As Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young reminded us, “The demand for football is inelastic.” He wasn’t really using the term correctly, but his point stood: all of us were still watching football, even if we weren’t particularly happy about it. This is the world today: driven entirely by profit motive, inelastic until dollars dictate otherwise. The refs could keep calling phantom pass interference until Skip Bayless’ head exploded, and it wouldn’t mean much at all until Skip actually turned off his TV set on Sunday afternoons.

But then, something funny happened. David won. The refs held on to their 401(k)s. The fans appetite for blood was satiated.

And it only happened because of one of the flukiest, freakiest moments in the history of American football.

With just eight seconds remaining in the last Monday Night Football game the replacement officials would ever participate in, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back from the 24 yard-line. He held the ball, held it some more, and finally let it fly – first, as replays clearly showed, into the hands of Green Bay defensive back M.D. Jennings and then – once he had shoved Packers corner Sam Shields out of the way and wrestled Jennings to the ground, into the hands of Seattle receiver Golden Tate.

It was a play that by all accounts, should have ended in an interception and a victory for the Packers.

Instead, the Seahawks went home happy.

And the internet freaking exploded.

Forget 29 columns in three weeks: from the end of the game until the time a new deal was codified three days later, ran 39 separate pieces on just how horrible the replacements were, and just how overdue the NFL was in reinstating its regular officials.

Grantland columnist Bill Simmons – widely considered the most popular sports journalist of his generation, and a noted presence in social media – commented that he hadn’t seen such a sustained reaction on twitter since Osama bin Laden was killed.

Mitt Romney and President Obama, as well as VP candidate Paul Ryan, were all interviewed about the event the next day. They all expressed their disgust over the NFL’s actions and their unrelenting desire to get “our refs back.”

(Never mind that Roger Goodell was using the exact same kind of union-busting tactics Ryan had used with teachers in Wisconsin – but that’s a conversation on hypocrisy for another day.)

And three days later, we did. The NFL gave in to the noise – and the now very real actual possibility of fans switching off their TV sets.

This sort of chaos is just about the only thing that can create change nowadays, or convince those in power to listen to those who keep them there.

It doesn’t take a village anymore: It takes a calamitous moment that threatens to shake the core of an institution, and it takes tens of millions of people tuning in to witness it at the same time.

The outrage machine whirls eternally, but rarely in unison. For once, from late on a Monday night through the end of the week, it did. As a result, against all odds, we got what we wanted.

It’s funny that it happened this way, because one wouldn’t think sports would provide the common ground for Americans to finally come together. Our national pastimes are inherently competitive, and our fandom innately provincial: As fans, we stake claims to a certain team or teams, generally on certain federally-subsidized parcels of land within driving distance of our living room couch. For no other reason than just because, we also tend to hate everything that exists outside of these little bubbles. Our crosstown rivals are Satan, our divisional foes his spawn. 

At some point in the twentieth century, a few very rich white men concluded that Philadelphia and New York were sufficiently close in geography to avoid particularly awful interstate bus trips and thus, that the two cities’ football teams were suitable opponents twice a year. As a result, decades after these white knights rose from their round conference room table, this Giants fan despises everything the Eagles of Philadelphia stand for.

Maybe, in the end, sports is the only medium capable of providing the sort of earth shaking calamity mentioned above. Where else do you have millions of people paying attention – and passionately arguing about – the same event?

This is what I realized when, even if it was for just a few days, Philadelphia and New York could come together and agree: these scabs sucked. They needed to go.

It was a rare instance of brotherly love I could share with my friend from the other side of the Jersey Turnpike – and one I’d forget about instantly once a questionable pass interference call caused my Giants to fall to his Eagles the following Sunday.

Real refs: glad to have you back!

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