The crisis of the moment in the NFL involves referees who are altering the outcomes of games with bogus or dubious penalties. While it’s refreshing that this topic is receiving more attention, some of us remain skeptical that the status quo will ever change.
Why the pessimistic view? Because zebras throwing as many flags as possible has become an ingrained part of referee culture. That is, refs at all levels of football (and basketball) seem to be rewarded (or at least receive no penalty) for being foul happy.
Conversely, refs who may be more inclined to let them play, to keep their hankies in their pockets if violations are borderline or make no difference to the outcomes of plays, seem to be few and far between in a league where the number of penalties called set a record in 2018.
The closest analogy is to Washington, D.C., where new laws and rules are constantly being created, and where the bureaucrats who enforce said rules are rewarded with jobs, power, and career advancement.
In this nanny state, the sheeple have increasingly been conditioned to yield to those who “protect” them—or, in the arena of sports, to those who enforce rules that are “vital to protecting the integrity of the game.”
Furthermore, the system protects our rule/law enforcers. In pro-sports, coaches and players are often prohibited from criticizing referees’ calls.
Enter Tom Brady, the NFL’s all-time best quarterback and probably the league’s most influential player. After a recent Thursday night game replete with penalties, Brady could no longer contain himself.
“I’m turning off this game…can’t watch these ridiculous penalties anymore. Just let us play!!!!” he tweeted.
Stop the presses! Not only was this sentiment shared by millions of Americans, it was being voiced by someone who actually mattered.
Not long after Brady fired his salvo, the outcome of this week’s Lions-Packers Monday Night Football contest was again determined by the refs calling penalties where none existed. Afterwards, syndicated talk show host Jim Rome let loose with one of his hot takes.
In the intro to his Tuesday show, Rome railed against the officiating crew of Clete Blakeman for handing the game to the Packers:
Because last night wasn’t about the Lions and the Packers, it was about the refs. Seriously. I know I touched on it yesterday and mentioned in passing how bad the officiating has been this season, but Blakeman and company went next level last night.
This has been happening in the NFL for years. A touchdown that never would have happened happens; a drive that had been stopped is extended for one reason only—the awful judgment of those paid to make judgment calls.
In the NFL, the operative maxim is clearly “when in doubt, throw the flag.” The opposite view—“If unsure or borderline, keep the flag in your pocket”—is the exception.
In football pre-game shows, talking heads routinely identify the “keys to the game.” Alas, never mentioned is the true game-changer that decides the outcomes of 80 percent of close games: what referee is going to throw what unnecessary flag, especially in the fourth quarter?
One thinks a type of feedback loop could be at work. Certainly we see the same in Washington. Politicians come to town with big ideas of “cleaning up the swamp” and cutting through the “red tape,” only to realize that in order to get re-elected, they have to play the game. And in Washington, playing the game means making more red tape and contributing to the swamp’s ecosystem.
Not only do rampant borderline infractions determine the outcomes of too many football games, avalanches of penalties slow down games that are already too long. Refs and their flags have thus become a cloud of dread that hovers over every game. Each key play is followed by the question, “Where’s the flag?”
In a sports world where steep declines in attendance are already a problem, incentivizing referees to call as many penalties as possible is a head-scratcher. Still, Americans today have been conditioned to bow and not question authority. And so for years, fans and players have silently stewed as hyperactive zebras slowly ruin a beloved game.
Until one evening, Tom Brady fired the tweet heard ‘round the world.
Is it possible that could spark a revolution? We can only hope.
Bill Rice, Jr. is a freelance writer in Troy, Alabama. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.