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Opinion: Blame Roger Goodell, owners for replacement disaster

09.24.12 at 1:46 am ET


That’s the only reason you, me and 15 million others had to watch replacement officials do everything possible to screw up what should have been a terrific football game on Sunday night.

This is only about billionaire owners not wanting to lose a fight to referees, plain and simple. Follow the money and all that. We can knock Roger Goodell all day about this — and plenty of it is justified, to be sure — but if the owners told Goodell tomorrow to make a deal, Goodell would make a deal.

But that’s not going to happen. As hideous as the replacement officials were on Sunday night — players fighting after plays with no flags thrown, 24 accepted penalties for 215 yards and 13 first downs, botched holding and pass interference calls, utterly and completely overwhelmed refs who seemingly were intimidated by coaches and players, total amateur hour — it won’t change what really matters to Goodell and the owners.

Ratings aren’t going anywhere, which means money for the networks, which will eventually mean more money for the NFL. We know now that player safety and the integrity of the game don’t mean nearly as much as making every last dollar of profit. And no one is going to stop watching games and paying for Sunday Ticket and gambling on games and playing fantasy football. From a strictly financial perspective, where is the motivation to make a deal with the refs?

I get that it’s a business, I really do. No problem there. But don’t try, as Goodell as done over the last couple of years, to sell me on the idea that player safety is paramount. It’s not. Concussions only landed on Goodell’s radar because of lawsuits. Fear of losing money was the motivation. And now the chance to save some money is why you’ve got Division 3 officials looking like Division 3 officials every Sunday. Has “protecting the shield” ever seemed more disingenuous than it did on Sunday night?

Don’t blame the replacement officials, either. It’s not their fault that owners want to make the very best deal possible — quality of the product be damned — or that the regular officials want to continue their defined-benefit pension plan (the league wants to put a freeze on that plan and shift them over to a 401(k)).

It’s not their fault that they aren’t good enough. It’s not their fault that they were put in a position to only fail. It’s not their fault, really, that the players and coaches have less than no respect for their authority or ability (Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh had a duel of disgust with the refs on Sunday night).

It’s never going to work. It’s not going to get better, either. The ineptitude you witnessed on Sunday night — against both teams — won’t be enough to trigger a change in philosophy from the owners and Goodell. Nope. Here’s what you’ll need: A serious injury to a superstar or a couple of influential owners breaking ranks. Short of that — assuming the regular refs don’t give in — you’ll see some of these guys botching calls at the Super Bowl next February.

Let’s be very clear about this: The refs made some terrible calls against the Patriots on Sunday — a holding call against Brandon Spikes, a pass interference against Jerod Mayo, a Julian Edelman catch wiped out by a bogus offensive PI call — but they also applied their brand of suckage against the Ravens. And the refs had nothing to do with Kyle Arrington and McCourty struggling to catch easy interceptions, or Rob Gronkowski catching two passes (just three targets, or one more than Kellen Winslow and as many as Deion Branch) or Danny Woodhead getting 15 carries or Ray Rice rushing for 101 yards or Flacco doing whatever he wanted in the final three quarters.

The referees didn’t cost the Patriots the game. I’ll buy that. But that isn’t the point. How are we supposed to take the games seriously if the commissioner doesn’t even care, if he allows that disgrace to occur under his watch?

The biggest sport in America — by a lot — is, right now, a joke. The best players and coaches in the world are being officiated by folks in way over their heads. Clueless and powerless. And it shows and it shows often and we saw the worst to date on Sunday night.

But we were watching and we’ll be watching next Sunday and every Sunday after that. And for Goodell and his owners, that’s all that matters.

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