This is a story that has been in the cooker ever since the NFL began to reveal that the Saints* had participated in an illegal bounty program encouraging defensive players to injure their opponents, and to injure them as critically as possible.
I was waiting for the NFL to announce the punishment before posting it, however, as it was a working process, and by the time I was even beginning to feel comfortable posting it, we were past the "first wave" in terms of that breaking news, and I didn't feel like bringing it up again just out of the blue.
The NFL has slaaaaamed the Saints* FO thus far, giving them well deserved punishment for their actions, and, more importantly, their following attempts at a cover-up. Punishments for players involved are coming soon. And this is all well and good, but there is a third group that has escaped retribution, escaped justice, and it's the group that I, in fact, am more angry at than at any in the Saints* franchise.
The NFL referees.
The NFL referee has a job to do. That job is to ensure that the football game under their watch is played fair, without any rules being broken. They have quite a bit of power in that regards- judge, jury, and executioner. If you are an offensive lineman and you take a step forward before the ball is snapped, boom! The ref throws the flag, your team is penalized yards. Refs even have the power to eject players from games, as seen during the Thanksgiving game between Green Bay and Detroit, when players on both sides were faced with this justice.
The referees have this power in order to maintain... well, order, and to ensure that teams and individual players play by the rules or else. This is obviously very important and their power is well justified. Usually.
This thought is one of my trademark thoughts that goes on for a bit. Join me after the Leap of Faith for more.
Now, referees are human. They will make mistakes and nothing will ever change that. And don't ever tell me that you wouldn't make mistakes too if you were in a zebra outfit on an NFL field. It's going to happen. Even with coach's challenges, automatic scoring reviews, etc., human error will occur. I can accept and live with that.
However. There is a limit, there is a line, and there is the sense that more can be done. The 2009 NFC Championship Game is an excellent example. How many of us fans were witness to numerous illegal hits against Brett Favre in that game, with nary a flag in sight? Even Rodger Goodell said after the game that there were many missed illegal hits against our beloved QB.
The Saints* were essentially cheating in that game. They were offering sums of money to defensive players to injure the un-injureable (that year anyways) Brett Favre, and said defensive players were breaking the rules in an attempt to achieve that goal. And there was a group of people, a group of officials, tasked with preventing just such things from occurring- the referees. And they did nothing. The Saints* dirty ways could have been stopped in that game. You can't tell me that even with the $10K bounty on the line, even with Greg William's bloodlust apparently at an all-time high, that they wouldn't have started playing by the rules if they were being hit with every flag they deserved. The Saints*, even Williams, are smart. I won't say otherwise. If they were being penalized as much as they deserved to be, they would have pulled back some. Probably not all, no, but it wouldn't have become what it was.
I will say in all fairness that the referees could not have completely stopped the Saints* bounty program. The hit that ended Kurt Warner's career was, even by his own admission before and after the revelation that the players were paid to injure him, legal. The refs could do nothing about that. And they couldn't be expected to know what was going on behind closed doors. That's the NFL's job. But, the refs could have prevented illegal hits from multiplying, again, especially in the '09 NFCCG. And they failed- failed at their very job.
The system of challenges and instant replay review has certainly helped but it's not perfect. You cannot challenge or review an illegal hit that wasn't called. The coach can scream all they want at the refs but it will do no good. And the NFL's current policy when it comes to poor officiating- a limp wristed ‘sorry!' after the fact- is pathetic. They coddle those referees like they are Rodger Goodell's own children. Hell, Brad Childress was even fined for calling out the referees when the NFL admitted that they screwed up. (The first 2010 game against Green Bay, with the touchdown-that-wasn't-but-was, and the touchdown-that-was-but-wasn't, in case you forgot. You know, the game Green-Bay-won-but-should-have-lost.)
The system in place for referees is absolutely ludicrous. It is the biggest stain on the NFL today, IMO. A little while back Troy Aikman stated that he feels the NFL may be getting to the point of over-saturation, which would risk its status as the unquestioned king of sports in the United States- but to me, the more often bad referees make bad calls that lead to bad results, taint the system, the game itself, is the bigger risk to that. Yes, all sports have bad calls. Yes, referees are human and can make mistakes. Yes, there's absolutely nothing you can do to completely solve that problem. But there are ways to make it better.
Football has a 16 game season, and for all that the NFL wants it to become an 18 game season one day, I doubt that will happen. Every game counts. When a referee makes a bad call- *ahem*facemaskbyLionsagainstJoeWebb*ahem*, it can affect the entire season, with ripple effects even theoretically reaching to the Super Bowl.
The NFL is a multi-billion economic powerhouse. I would dare say, the way they are set up from top to bottom, they could be considered the most successful business in the United States over the past 10 years. They consistently draw in more money each year, even during the recession, even when Warren Buffet is taking a hit. Why, on G-d's green earth, do they not have full time referees? That's the first solution. I don't want a guy who busses at Chili's in the week on the field on Sunday. I want a guy who's busy during the week reviewing tapes, maybe even monitoring practices to get their ability to see plays as they happen grow. It's been harped on and screamed about numerous times from pretty much every fanbase in the NFL, and it's absurd that a money machine like the NFL can't make it happen already.
And the referees need to be held far more accountable than they currently are. I propose that, obviously with referees going full-time, they receive considerable increases in pay, more than just the boost of going part-time to full-time. Why? Because I think referees should also be fined when they make a major screw-up. Not every time- a bad holding call that doesn't really affect the game should be let go. But when your poor officiating potentially changes the outcome of a game- you should get hit. Do I think you should not be able to feed your family due to a bad call? Hell no, hence why I think they should receive considerable pay-raises, allowing them to offset fines in a reasonable manner. Would this be a bit of a ‘crowd pleaser', some blood-letting to satiate the enraged masses? Sure. Would it change what happened in the game? Nope. But it would be a lot better than the "my bad" the NFL currently offers up. And maybe it would be good incentive for the referees to make sure they get it right the first time. Am I saying they aren't already motivated to do their jobs right? No, but it never hurts to increase incentives- both positive and negative.
Whether it's by these recommendations or not, the NFL needs to do something. The current system may be working "well enough", I suppose; but there's a lot of room for improvement, and the fact that the referees allowed the Saints* to get away with what they got away with in the 2009 NFCCG should be the final nail in the coffin, the final motivation for the NFL to re-work that system and get it to the highest standard possible- which I absolutely refuse to accept that it is at right now.