The ultimate reality show currently is providing high drama on the issue of officiating. The NFL has hunkered down, with denial bordering on delusion regarding the quality of third-tier-and-worse replacements for the locked-out men in black and white.
The talking points that were issued in July apparently have been updated to suggest that owners should say there’s no difference between the locked-out officials and the regular officials. Texans owner Bob McNair has said it. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said it.
The league office insists that the replacements are improving. Maybe, in comparison to where they were, they are. But improving and adequate are two different issues.
And while at least three coaches have broken ranks (to some degree) in the past two weeks, with Bengals coach Marvin Lewis most recently calling out the replacements for blowing a call on Thursday night, the NFL has managed to keep the issue from reaching critical mass — in large part because the fans and more importantly the players have been apathetic.
The players are the key to this one. As Peter King suggested earlier this week on PFT Live, at least one leader per team needs to speak out. Instead, Pats quarterback Tom Brady expressed nonchalance at the replacements last week — an emotion he surely won’t be projecting when a defensive lineman gives Brady a dirty look and a flag isn’t thrown.
And where’s Saints quarterback Drew Brees in this? Outspoken on matters that directly affect his bank accounts, the supposed union leader is providing zero leadership when it comes to an issue that potentially imperils all players by giving them what the NFLPA calls “first responders” who aren’t the first choice.
The players and the NFLPA could be the only ones to break the current impasse, by putting enough pressure on the NFL to get back to the bargaining table. Players can help by speaking out, and the NFLPA can move the needle by filing a grievance or taking some other action that would poke a thorn into the NFL’s side.
(Actually, we’ve heard random chatter about the possibility of players filing suit against the NFL and the NFLPA for exposing them to substandard officials. Before the players lawyer up, however, they need to speak up.)
Last year during the players lockout, the antitrust litigation filed by, among others, Brady and Brees provided a framework for forcing the two sides to negotiate. This year, with no one pushing the parties together, the NFL can sit back with its arms folded, waiting for the locked-out officials to blink. And the locked-out officials (most if not all of whom have other employment) can sit back with their arms folded, waiting for the kind of blunder that will wake up the players and the fans.
We should expect better behavior from the stewards of the game. Fans and players should demand it.
UPDATE 10:02 a.m. ET: In fairness to Brees, he has spoken out during routine media availability. But that’s not the kind of speaking out that will resonate, because to date his words on the topic haven’t. The players need an affirmative, coordinated effort to pressure the NFL and the officials to go back to the bargaining table.