At approximately 11:45 p.m. on September 24, 2012, Twitter became a delightful bilefest with all sorts of enmity directed at Roger Goodell. And I'll admit it, the Ginger Hammer is an easy target. He's an entitled son of a Senator who makes way more money than us and seems to make the wrong decision at every point where Paul Tagliabue made a right one.
Picking on Goodell is like picking on Dick Fuld or Jimmy Cayne; yes he's the figurehead for everything that's wrong but his only problem is execution. I'm as guilty as any of you as aiming my fire at Goodell, but the real enemy here is the owners. They're the ones whose greed is driving this mess, whose intransigence will ensure we get more joke games in the future and who have shown that they don't care what you think about their product as long as you keep watching. And in the end, we're powerless to stop it.
If you've ever worked at a big corporation you know that money talks. The people who have the money are the ones who call the shots, and your role as an employee is to carry out their bidding. The NFL is no different; Goodell is the NFL's errand boy. And my guess is as far back as 2010 the owners told Goodell to hold the line on a new CBA with the referees. Goodell, either out of hubris or incompetence, did not put proper contingencies in place.
Unlike the MLB, which can just replace striking umpires with AAA refs since they run minor league baseball, the NFL has to grab new referees in the normal course of business from other organizations like the SEC or the Big 10. If Goodell had come into the 2012 season with replacement refs from major college football conferences instead of the Lingerie Football League then the Seattle Screw never would have happened. But, for whatever reason, Goodell came into 2012 unprepared. And keep in mind, this isn't the first time that the commissioner's failure to prepare for a labor stoppage cost the NFL; the 2011 lockout ended when Goodell found out that the players had a contingency fund that he hadn't counted on. Once again, Goodell failed to secure the necessary leverage in a negotiation.
Goodell would end the referee lockout today if he could. He's been with the league for nearly 30 years, he doesn't want to see it embarrassed like this. But the owners, his bosses, are the ones that are calling our bluff. The owners have wisely figured out that they can skimp on ref pay and see the same TV revenues. When Jerry Jones was confronted about the Seattle Screw he feigned ignorance. That's all that we will see from the owners as long as the locked out refs think that they have leverage.
The league's only hope is that a coalition of the old-timey football families like the Rooneys and the Maras decide that it's in the best interest of the game to have decent refs. But the new owners who paid a lot of money and want to see big returns aren't going to be as easy to displace. We're stuck with the scab refs for a while.
However, our venting won't get rid of Goodell. He's signed through 2018 and those penny pinching owners would at the very least let him ride out his contract unless he either pulls a Petrino or triggers some type of out clause in his deal. We need to remember that Twitter, sports blogs and the Internet in general are a small place. We didn't get Conan his show back, we didn't topple Ahmadinejad, all we did was get Betty White to host SNL and Pitbull to go to Alaska. We don't matter in this fight.
When I was a kid and the Whalers were losing I'd switch the channel and switch it back in the hope that it would help the team's odds. In college I once threw one of my friends out of my dorm room because I thought he was bad luck for the Giants. But over time you learn that fandom is about surrendering control, that you have no bearing on the outcome of games. And that's the harsh lesson that we are all seeing now. As Steve Young has already noted so eloquently, the fans will keep coming even if the refs get Earl Hebner-bad. And he's right, what else are we going to do on fall Sundays? Most of my social calendar in the next few months involves football somehow. As I wrote elsewhere:
[F]riends cycle in and out of your life. I spend a lot of time with my coworkers now, but who knows if we’ll still be doing the same in 5 or 10 years? But I have noticed that of all the friends I’ve made; high school, college, law school, work; the ones who’ve stuck have been sports fans. We always had that. Especially the football fans. They’re always guys I can go to the bar with, catch a game, and let the action take over for lulls in the conversation.
I'm guessing the same holds for a lot of you too. We've tied our lives to something that we cannot control, and now it's going haywire and there's nothing that we can do about it. I think a lot of frustration with modern American life is that we increasingly we feel that we have no power over our lives, not our jobs, not our government, not anything. Everything has been institutionalized and commoditized, just look at Darren Rovell's Twitter account if you're not convinced that you're just a statistic.
Our NFL fandom is an item on a balance sheet and the replacement refs are just another symbol of our powerlessness. Complaining isn't the least we can do, it's the most we can do.