No Faith Left (NFL)

Caught as we are between two epochs (the fading Newtonian and emerging Quantum ages), we find ourselves in a period that appears to be without rules. Experience repeatedly shows us the many ways our old rules no longer apply; but we don’t yet have any faith in what rules we should now be following.

You may wonder what a period like this might look like. I’d suggest it could look a lot like today’s National Football League.

For those who haven’t been following the story, the owners of the NFL teams have locked out the regular game referees who enforce the rules. The referees’ union contract has expired, and the NFL wants them to accept a new deal with significant concessions – including changes to the refs’ pensions and modifications that might affect their job security.

Taking a hard line, the owners had the NFL bring in “replacement refs” (some call them scabs) so the games can go on. The results have not been pretty.  The replacements have demonstrated an unfamiliarity with various league rules and a tendency to be intimidated or star-struck by the superstar players and coaches they’re supposed to regulate. Meanwhile, players and coaches have been pushing the envelope, testing to see what rules they can bend without getting caught.

Over the first three weeks of the regular season, complaints about these refs have grown to a crescendo. As Deadspin’s Drew Magary observed:

One of the great fallacies of this ongoing NFL replacement ref disaster is the idea that the refs will get better with each passing week, that a mere month or two of seasoning will magically make the scab refs as good as the old ones. If you watched any football yesterday, you know that the refs aren’t improving. They’re getting even worse.

Things got even worse at the end of last night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. As Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg explained:

If you have not seen how that Green Bay-Seattle debacle ended, I will give you a recap. Since I am clearly a Football Expert, I may use some Technical Terms to do it, but bear with me.

The Green Bay Guys had a 12-7 lead on the Seattle Guys with one play left. A Seattle Guy chucked the ball into the end zone, where a Green Bay Guy caught it. This was known as an “interception” in football for a long time, from roughly 1906, when the “forward pass” was invented, until Sept. 24, 2012, when the definition suddenly changed.

A Seattle Guy put his hands on the ball that the Green Bay Guy clearly caught, and so Roger Goodell’s officials conferred and immediately called for a pizza. This was an odd decision, since the game was still going on, but replacement refs have metabolisms too, and it is exhausting to run around a football field all night trying to remember what the rules are. They decided the Seattle Guy was probably a good Guy, and he had his hands on the ball too, and he surely INTENDED to catch the ball, and who were they to judge what is in a man’s soul? They gave the Seattle Guy a “touchdown”.

This confused a few people, especially the Packers, the announcers, Football Experts like myself and the two billion people around the world who have watched a football game and were not recently concussed. Nonetheless, the Seahawks “won” the “game”.

The result has been a firestorm of criticism of the NFL from it’s fans and followers. While a sports league generally wants all of the focus on the teams, the games and the results, the big news coming out of this weekend’s games is the incompetence of the officiating.

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that things in the NFL are spiraling out of control.  Those responsible for enforcing the rules are clearly not up to the job, and that fact has become clear to the players, the coaches and the fans.  As Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks observes:

We have indeed reached the “Emperor is not wearing any clothes” stage of the proceedings, and there’s no going back after Monday night’s Golden (Tate) moment. If you thought the pressure was on the replacement refs in the season’s first three weeks, wait until you see what life after Seattle is going to be like for them, starting with Thursday night’s Cleveland at Baltimore game to kick off Week 4.

What is at the heart of this debacle? Simply put: money and power.

Actually, the money for the NFL is miniscule. As Banks reported:

…my colleague Peter King reported that the difference between the NFL and the refs’ union is $3.3 million a year. Well, there are 256 regular season games. The NFL could have the real refs if it forked over an extra $12,891 per game.

That is less than 20 cents for every paying customer.

What’s really at stake here is a question of power: who is in control and who calls the shots. The NFL had reduced the pensions on all other League employees, but the referees had resisted that change. Plus, the League wants to create a larger pool of referees, to give itself more control over who officiates the games.

Those changes may or may not be reasonable, depending on your perspective.

However, the issue appears to be that – as with the players’ lockout the year before – the owners were less interested in negotiating and more interested in simply dictating terms. The owners, almost all of whom are extremely wealthy and powerful men, are apparently used to calling the shots and having everyone else fall in line behind them.

But that didn’t happen this time. (It didn’t really happen with the players last year either, for that matter.) The referees, perhaps recognizing their very specialized skills and value, resisted. In a bid to assert their control, the League locked out the officials and brought in the replacements…and here we are.

As Don Banks noted:

But in the case of the referee issue, at what price glory when it comes to the league winning this war? The league, in essence, created this problem for itself, came up with a bad solution to address the problem, then tried to insult our intelligence by telling us repeatedly that there really wasn’t a problem with which to be concerned. Nothing to see here, move along, the NFL keeps saying.

While the obvious problem here is enforcing the rules in NFL games, the more significant problem involves the issue I mentioned at the start of this post: the old rules about how things are done no longer apply, and there are not yet new rules in which we can have faith.

In the old days information – and therefore power – was controlled by the very few at the top. In today’s world, information is much more broadly (and quickly) distributed. So in the past an Emperor or King or Sports Commissioner could call the shots and nobody would know any different. Today the underlings can have a much better sense of the big picture. Plus, if they’re so inclined they can take steps to alter or amplify the information about their situation.

This dynamic is still emerging. As with any major change in epochs, there isn’t a clear break between the way things used to be done and the way they will be done in the future.

Powerful people like the NFL owners got where they are “the old fashioned way.” It worked fine for them, so they are most likely to resist any efforts to change things. The fact that the times have changed is not part of their perspective. Meanwhile, those more in tune to the way things are today don’t generally have the power to actualize any new rules they may be growing aware of.

The end result is that we find ourselves living in a period of weak and unpredictably enforced rules. Our faith in those rules has been diminished. Many today are pushing the envelope, trying to see what they can get away with. This generates a great deal of anger – both at the rule breakers and at those responsible for fairly and competently enforcing the rules.

And so the NFL has become a microcosm of our current national state: corporations are the players pushing the envelope, while governments are the bumbling officials who all too often don’t have a clue.  Meanwhile, the rest of us are watching on TV or in the stands – alternately cheering or booing the latest action, but inwardly fuming at the whole deplorable spectacle.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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