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.

Orange ball, red ink: the NBA’s surprising financial losses

David Nelson’s recent blog entry addressed a rather surprising revelation by David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Commissioner Stern says that the NBA lost $370 million last season, and has lost $200 million in each of the prior 4 seasons. This adds up to well over $1 billion in losses over the past five seasons.

David Nelson is, of course, writing from the perspective of a Seattle resident, and thus includes a less-than-flattering reference to the Oklahoma City Thunder (which were formerly the Seattle Supersonics). David also makes reference to the possibility of an NBA lockout on or about 2011 July 01 should no new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) be reached, which is echoed in this story printed in USA Today.

This is a scary thought for sports fans with relatively fresh memories of the NHL’s lockout which resulted in the cancellation of a full season (the 2004-05 season), as well as the NBA’s abbreviated 1998-99 season which was also due to a lockout.

To say it would be unfortunate to lose even part of the 2011-12 NBA season would be an understatement. We should remember a large part of reason the NHL lost a whole season, however, was the stubborn refusal of the NHLPA to believe that the owners were telling the truth about how much money was being lost. And no offense intended to hockey fans or players, but I’d like to think NBA players are smart enough to reach a reasonable agreement.

I understand the frustrations of some of the public, basketball fans or not, who take a very dim view of two rival groups of millionaires squabbling (and I say this as public perception, even though a number of rookie NBA players do not qualify as millionaires in the strict sense). I think it is unfortunate that these types of labor disputes happen, but they happen everywhere; it’s just that in professional sports, they get much more publicity due to the large fan base.