Monday, September 24, 2012
Out Of Hand
"Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they're needed Back at work !!!! #BreakingPoint"
Breaking point, indeed. You hear that, Roger Goodell? The guys on the field are tired of it. They are tired of milling around for five minutes, their muscles tightening up as their concept of flow and game pace disintegrates, while these pathetic officials parse out what exactly the hell just happened. They are tired of obvious penalties being missed and phantom ones being called, and then walked off for arbitrary and incorrect amounts of yardage. Mostly, they are tired of this game they play and love being warped into something uncertain, unrecognizable, and unpleasant. Spikes wasn't the only one to violate the NFL's Gestapo "don't criticize the officials" edict, either. Several other players, either obliquely or flat-out, voiced their increasing displeasure with the shoddy refereeing. Which is fine so long as it remains that way. They'll shoot off at the mouth or on their Twitter accounts and you'll fine them for it and life will go on. But what happens when and if "breaking point" becomes something more than a Twitter hashtag?
In 2004, I watched in horrified fascination as Ron Artest charged into the stands of The Palace at Aubrun Hills and punched a fan, the result of a game-long buildup of tension and frustration and a beer launched from the stands that showered Artest as he lay on the scorer's table. It was one of the most appalling moments in sports history, and it did significant damage to the NBA, lending credence to every "thug" stereotype that, for whatever reason, people still bandy about today. Now, Ron Artest is a certifiable crazy person, and it's a fair bet that most players in both the NBA and NFL would never, ever, do something legitimately violent no matter what the provocation. But that was one bad game and a cup of beer. Extrapolate the frustrations the players feel now, compounded game after game after game, then couple that with the mental and physical toll of an NFL season. Is it so hard to imagine a player in week 15, his body aching and his nerves shot, fed up with too many bad calls and longer-than-necessary games, finally snapping? If this situation doesn't get fixed, sooner or later a scab ref is going to blow a big call in a crucial game, and someone on the field is going to haul off and deck him for it. Then where will your precious "integrity of the game" be?
If the players are about ready to lose it, the coaches aren't far behind. Bill Belichick was the one who actually grabbed an official at the end of the game yesterday, but it could easily have been any of the other coaches whose teams suffered under the incompetence of the scab refs. If, for instance, the Vikings had lost yesterday, Leslie Frazier could have waylaid official Ken Roan for those two (TWO!!!) illegal challenges he went ahead and granted to Jim Harbaugh's 49ers. Truthfully, it could have been every coach in the league, because all of them had egregiously horrible calls go against their teams at one point or another. I'm no Belichick fan, and I even feel like yesterday was a little bit of karmic payback for every 50/50 call the Pats have gotten over the past decade. And yeah, grabbing an official, especially when the league issued a perfectly clear warning about such behavior, was not the brightest move. That being said, the man wanted to know whether the game deciding play was going to be reviewed, and the officials ignored him. They were told by the league to walk away whenever they were being hassled, even if that hassle was a simple inquiry as to the process which determined the outcome of a game against a division rival. To my way of thinking, Belichick didn't go far enough. He should have cornered the guy and demanded an explanation. If Roger Goodell doesn't want the refs questioned, he should bring back refs that no one (most of the time) needs to question. Frankly, I don't care anymore about "respecting" the officials, who have done nothing to deserve it. They have no mandate or authority whatsoever. Understand, I don't blame them; they were simply unprepared to cope with the game at the highest level, but the league is clearly uninterested in policing them, and somebody's got to. Bill Belichick will probably be fined and possibly be suspended, but he was entirely justified. This isn't the last time something like this will happen, either. If Jim Schwartz can get this worked up over a handshake, Lord only knows how furious he'll be over a bogus pass interference call.
And then there are the fans. Staying with the Baltimore/New England game, last night featured a full minute of this from the crowd at M & T Bank Stadium. If you've ever been at a sporting event where the home team was the victim of a dubious officiating call, then you know there are graduated levels of fan reaction:
1. Scattered boos: A called third strike or a questionable off sides penalty, etc. in non-crucial situations. Low-level disgruntlement and general homerism.
2. Scattered boos + profanity and epithets aimed at the official in question: An iffy call in a more critical situation, or in a game against a traditional rival. Your team got seriously hosed. Mere boos aren't enough and you need to lob some invective and shockingly specific sentiments at the people responsible.
3. Coordinated chants in the spirit of the game. Sometimes, you need to call out an official for a particularly atrocious penalty, but you do this acknowledging that these things happen to every team from time to time. As such, you perform a spirited (yet ultimately fueled by bleak and grudging humor) group rendition of either: the rhythmic "REF YOU SUCK" chant, or the sing-song "BUUUUULLSH****T!" chant (the latter of which is sung to the interval of a doorbell ringing, a minor third. Just sing it out in your head like a doorbell and you'll know what I mean.) This is designed to voice your frustration while alleviating any real anger through collective release and the understanding that everyone else in the arena is upset too.
4. Soccer Hooliganism/Last night. Listen to that audio again. Those fans aren't commiserating with one another; there's no wink-wink, it's-all-part-of-the-game joyous indignation in that sound. That's a minute-plus of "BULL-SH*T!!!!" chanted fervently and with a primal edge. There is real malice behind it; a pathological sense of anger and indignation. This is mob mentality, and it's scary stuff, and the league should be worried about it. Can you imagine if last night's game had been played in, oh, say, Philly? Yeah, that would have gone well. This is the kind of thing that is one step away from a drunk fan rushing onto the field and assaulting a referee.
All of which doesn't even mention the gamblers. A pissed-off fan is nothing compared to a guy who bets a few grand on Dallas covering the spread and then must watch that money evaporate into the ether via a bad officiating call that negates a touchdown. Mark my words, there is at least one person out there who routinely lays heavy timber on the outcomes of NFL games who might become unhinged after a few weeks of this abject nonsense screwing with his cash flow. Will this push them to do something drastic? I'd like to think otherwise, but I wouldn't bet on it.
#BreakingPoint. It's not just the tag line to an isolated tweet, it's a brief and accurate summation of how everyone involved with the NFL who isn't an owner or league official feels today. As Jackie MacMullan wrote earlier today: "Enough. Enough, enough, enough."
Just as I was finishing this post up, the Monday night Packers/Seahawks game was also decided on a horrific call. Seattle's Golden Tate just "caught" a last-second touchdown heave to give the Seahwaks the win. Problem: Packers' safety M.D. Jennings clearly came down with the ball. The review, which the officials saw from multiple angles, somehow failed to overturn the obviously erroneous call. (Not only did Green Bay make the interception, but Tate clearly commited offensive pass interference on the replay.) Everything is in disarray. Tirico and Gruden are sitting here killing the refs, who for some reason are still trying to figure out if an extra point needs to be kicked. The Packers, rightfully disgusted by this whole travesty, have left the field, as have most of the officials who now seem disinterested in the whole affair. Oh, wait, here come the Packers, putting eleven men on the field for the extra point, dutifully playing out the end of this farce. This is horrible. I feel dirty even watching it, but it's a morbidly appropriate end to this pathetic weekend.
The difficulty is that, like millions of Americans, I'm still watching. Steve Young told us last week, in no uncertain terms, what we instinctively knew but didn't really want to hear or believe: that so long as our eyes are on the TV and our wallets are emptying for RG3 jerseys, the NFL could care less about any of this. Sadly, he was not wrong. They don't care. At all.
One final incident worth noting. We have heard for the better part of two seasons about how player safety is paramount. If you make illegal hits, if you endanger your fellow players, the consequences will be steep and swift. The players' health matters; the integrity of the game is oh so very, very important. This is what we've been told. And yet. Yesterday Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey ran a crossing route through the end zone and got absolutely, illegally speared by Steelers safety Ryan Mundy as he attempted to haul in a pass. On the replay, Heyward-Bey was clearly unconscious before he even hit the turf. He was immobilized and rushed to the hospital, from whence he was released today with a concussion and a strained neck.
No flag was thrown on the play, nor have we heard anything from the league about fining or suspending Mundy.
To reprise that Baltimore crowd last night: BULLSH*T!!!!