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The Mercy Rule

Picking at Scabs

The scab refs look, in short, like scabs—unqualified people hired to do a job they don't really know how to do at the behest of a management group which doesn't especially value that job, or at least less so than they value the chump change saved by...

It happens in every NFL game: During a lull in the action, the cameras find the team owner's private box. These boxes mostly look the same, and the owners—or what's visible of them behind the light-washed glass that separates them from the rest of the people at the game—mostly look the same. White hair, white (or tanned) faces, the country club casual favored by a certain type of a certain generation of plutocrat, sometimes a fluffy nimbus of poshly soused nephews and in-laws distributed at a respectful difference from The Man Himself. If NBC's Al Michaels or CBS's Jim Nantz are doing the game, viewers are treated to a little thumbnail Forbes profile of the owner in question. This will be about the owner's bravery in sticking with a coach or a GM, his Dedication To Winning, some sort of humanizing you-know-he-actually-flies-his-own-plane detail. If you want it to be, this casual, time-filling handjob artistry can be tacky, actually offensive, or emblematic of the NFL's high-volume dedication to being as mainstream as possible. But mostly it's just something that shows up on television when there's not any actual football happening.


There have been a great many of these lulls in the action, even by the NFL's usual grunt-and-pause standards, over the first three weeks of the NFL season. This is thanks to the familiar weekly Antietam of injuries, the squirming masses of turf-pounding players with their scrambled knees or steamrolled ankles—or, more frighteningly, the more serious injuries of the stock-still and backboard-loaded sort—which take us solemnly from silent stadiums to commercial breaks where Denis Leary sneers out truck-plaudits from J.D. Power and Associates and Sam Elliott slowly describes a beer that tastes like carbonated bathtub fart as if it was the liquid embodiment of American Exceptionalism.

That's when football is working like it should. This season's NFL games have not been up to par; they've dragged and slackened into something altogether more static and claustrophobic and chippy and shouty-shovey than most fans have ever seen. That responsibility falls, in the most immediate sense, on the scab officials NFL owners brought in after locking out the referees union over what appears now, in the wake of Monday’s calamitous/amazing “Let Them Eat Cake” game between the Packers and Seahawks, as an amusingly/depressingly small pension-related afterthought of an issue. That's the game that caused the internet to rise as one and yell, "Are you kidding me?" as a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game resulted in one ref calling an interception and one calling a touchdown, both hip-deep in boos. The (non-scab) replay official ended up upholding the touchdown call as literally every single other person in the football world looked on in disbelief. TJ Lang, the Packers lineman, summed it up nicely in a statement that got retweeted nearly 80,000 times: "Fuck it NFL. Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs."


It’s unarguable, of course, that the scab refs lost the game for Green Bay. The agonizingly slow play and inevitability of suspect results, however,  are just as much the fault of the men in those owners' suites, and those have been occurring all over the league. The replacement refs have struggled bravely and futilely to peel opposing linemen off each other after seemingly every play. They’d throw flags and refrain from throwing flags seemingly at random; last week's scariest injury—a sniper-shot of a helmet-to-helmet blindside tackle on Raiders wideout Darius Heyward-Bey that ended with the receiver giving the crowd a thumbs-up from a stretcher—was not flagged at all.

NFL broadcasters, who are generally so emptily reverent of authority as to make Wolf Blitzer seem like Huey Newton, have found it increasingly impossible not to comment on the blown calls and absent authority. In Sunday night's game between the Patriots and Ravens, the Baltimore crowd's thunderclap "Bullshit" chant was so loud that Michaels had no choice but to acknowledge it; Monday’s postgame scrum on ESPN was somewhere between a shiva and a town hall meeting gone bad. The scab refs look, in short, like scabs—unqualified people hired to do a job they don't really know how to do at the behest of a management group which doesn't especially value that job, or at least less so than they value the chump change saved by not paying those who actually know how to do it.

People being people, and the weird power-boner conversation surrounding the NFL being the weird power-boner conversation surrounding the NFL, there's been a lot of willful and impressively limber point-missing going on concerning this inescapable insult. Rush Limbaugh, who likes football nearly as much as he dislikes minorities, compared the overmatched refs—who simply sprouted up unbidden, in his telling, like so many weeds or illegal immigrants—to affirmative action. This is stupid, but it's Limbaugh: He compares everything he doesn't like to liberal policy priorities, and the next time he overeats himself into a bout of the steak-shits he will doubtless compare the whole thing, on the radio, to the Great Society or Tommy Douglas or something. Late Sunday night, a sportswriter carped at me on Twitter for using the word "scab" to describe the replacement refs, because "we [weren't] talking about MINERS" and because he found the implied indignation in the word choice unseemly. This is also stupid, but it's the internet, where it's normal to weep one's way through a self-administered proctological examination in response to any stimulus, then recount the whole experience in colorful and deeply personal detail.

These are two different-seeming ways to miss the point, but they converge in the end, since both are fussily righteous ways of not engaging the only absolute there is to engage in the NFL's peaking ref-related mess. The scab refs are bad because they're not qualified refs; the qualified refs are not on the field because the owners locked them out over a small amount of money and a large point of fatuous-if-deeply-held anti-labor principle; they did this because they believed fans would come back anyway. (The owners tried this with scab players in 1987, and it didn't work.)

Entering Monday, everyone watching the NFL had cursed the same things over three weeks—the befuddled lulls and slack chaos and the fuck-ups that will get the players, the league's truest commodity and previous locked-out labor group, hurt sooner than later—though it seems like all of football is recoiling. The owners, before now only dimly visible in the deluxe, glass-encased suites they built themselves, are no longer just looking down at those same fields with everyone else. All of us want the games to go on, but only the observers Jim Nantz tells his little stories about can do anything about it. That those feudal few haven't and won't do that says a good deal about them. It says a lot more about how they think of us.