Changing of the zebras: The NFL and replacement officiating

This past Thursday the original NFL officials that had been locked out since the preseason finally returned to the field (specifically, M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore for the Thursday night Ravens-Browns game), ending a nearly two-month period of frustration where undertrained officials were not only the source of frustration for fans, coaches, players, and sports journalists alike, but were also frequently the topic of conversation on sports talk radio stations around the country.

The lockout centered around a dispute regarding retirement benefits, with the league wanting to move immediately to a 401(k) and away from a defined-benefit pension plan. And it’s admirable that the officials stood their ground. However, I fault the NFL on two points. One, for not expediting the resolution of this dispute before at least the end of the preseason, after which it was already obvious that you can’t just go and secretly replace NFL-trained zebras with Brand X officials pulled out of college and high-school officiating. Two, for not having a better contingency plan. It would have been far better for the sport of football to either shorten the season or delay the start of it until the situation with the officials could be straightened out.

And I say this even as a fan of the 3-0 Texans, whose first three wins were officiated by the replacements. And no, I don’t think that the replacement officials tainted those wins. There were a few blown calls but nothing of the magnitude of the Packers-Seahawks game, which even the league admits was handled poorly. (However, the NFL  gives a different reason; they said the simultaneous catch call should have been moot due to an offensive pass interference that should have been called but was not.)

It’s good to have the real referees back. And it’s hard to fault the replacements for doing their best with a lack of training, though in fairness they should never have been put in that difficult position to begin with.