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Kill the Referee (A Roger Goodell Production)

ESPN.com

Ben Eisen, Staff Writer

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Six….five….four…three…two…In one final, desperate heave, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson launches a pass towards the endzone.  In the endzone, Seahawks receiver Golden Tate stands, ready to jump for the ball, along with Green Bay Packers M.D. Jennings and Sam Shields.  The ball sails towards Tate, who shoves Shields to the ground, and then jumps.  Jennings and Tate appear to make a simultaneous catch as they fall to the ground, each team claiming to have possession of the ball.

The referees sprint over.  They start pulling players from the pile overtop Tate and Jennings.  Finally, a jumbled signal comes.  One referee signals touchdown, while the other signals interception.  After a lengthy review, head official Wayne Elliott makes the final call: touchdown.

Upon replay, it seems clear that Jennings was the first to get his hands on the ball, therefore, by NFL rules, the play should end in an interception, and the Packers would have won the game.  However, the play stood as called, and Seattle finished with a victory, 14-12.

October 25 will mark the five-week anniversary of the regular referees’ official return to football.  The replacement referees were a motley crew of high school and low-level college officials, given a chance because high-level college referees were already working. The return of the normal officials was the culmination of three weeks of pain and agony for NFL players, coaches and fans, with the Seahawks-Packers game being the summit of the replacement referees blunders.

“They did as well as I thought they would do: not very well,” freshman Brendan Benning said.

On Sept. 26, Gene Steratore and his crew worked the Cleveland Browns against the Baltimore Ravens to a standing ovation from the fans.

“To just be applauded by 50,000 people prior to anything happening, it was something that kind of chokes you up,” Steratore said in a postgame press conference.

Many people have insulted Commissioner Roger Goodell about the incident, saying he should have shown more initiative in getting the regular referees back on the field.  However, despite their efforts a great question still remains:  How would replacement referees affect other professional sports?

The impact on baseball is difficult to imagine, because the calls in each game are mostly objective, rather than subjective.  For instance, if an umpire is in the right position to make a call, it is fairly easy to see if a runner is safe or out, if a ball is fair or foul or if a fly ball is caught or dropped.

By comparison, in football, calls are almost completely up to a referee’s judgment; whether the call is a false start, pass interference, illegal contact or holding.  The fact that baseball officiating is almost all objective leaves little room for error by replacement umpires.

That said, there is one place where replacement umpires could drastically change games and calls: from behind home plate.  Watching baseball games on TV, it seems as though umpires call balls and strikes almost effortlessly.  However, it is unlikely a high school umpire would be able to correctly call one of Justin Verlander’s 94 m.p.h. fastballs.

Being a major league home plate umpire is one of the hardest jobs in sports.  To make a single call, the umpire has to judge where the ball crossed the plate, where the catcher was set up, the batter’s reaction, the catcher’s reaction and the lines of the batters’ boxes.  He has to do all of this in a split second.

To become a major league umpire, one has to go through several years of training, and still have to climb through the minor league ranks before even getting a shot to officiate a single major league game.  It is highly doubtful a high school umpire could even come close to the job the men who now call balls and strikes do.

If MLB umpires were to go on strike or were locked out, it would bring up a similar period in MLB history: the 1979 Major League Umpires Association (MLUA) strike.  At the time, major league umpires were being paid between $17,500 and $40,000, a nice salary at the time, but not as much as some other referees made.  Unhappy with their salaries, the MLUA advised the umpires to go on strike at the beginning of the 1979 season.

In response to the strike, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn hired amateur and retired umpires to officiate the first month of the season.  The scab umpires were met mostly the same way as the public welcomed the NFL replacements.

“The absence of major-league umpires due to a continuing labor dispute has brought with it the suspicion that their replacements are, at best, vulnerable to the pressure,” wrote Phil Musick in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 15, 1979

On the same day Musick wrote his article, the MLB and the MLUA reached a deal that ended the labor dispute.  The umpires returned to action two days later.

Baseball is easily the most difficult sport to determine the consequences of replacement officials.  However, that is not to say that baseball would be the only sport that would have repercussions.  Take basketball, for example.

In basketball, the effect of replacement referees on the sport might be the lowest out of the Big 4 (baseball, basketball, hockey, football).  Likely aided by the factor of already inconsistent officiating (a foul called for LeBron James might not be called for Nene Hilario), replacement referees would just have to act the same as the regular officials do.  The only problem potentially facing the replacements would be keeping control on the court.

“They wouldn’t have the training to officiate at that level,” varsity basketball coach Brian Nelson said.  “They would have to almost learn on the fly.”

In the second week of the NFL season, the players figured out that the replacement referees did not have the same amount of control the regular officials had.  This resulted in more fights and more dissent between the players.  The replacements lost the control they had once the players figured out how to exploit their newfound advantages.

In the NBA, fights are an even bigger problem because the benches are so close to the action.  A small skirmish can escalate in an instant.  Keeping control on the court would be insanely difficult for the replacements, and would be the most key point in the NBA’s own struggle with their referees.

What happened to the first three weeks of the NFL season does not have to happen again.  Fans stopped focusing on football and started to focus more on the referees.  In other sports, the predictable consequences would likely be the same as the first three weeks.

“In any case, in sports, replacement refs are not a good thing,” freshman Danielle Valenti said.

There are plenty of complaints about the normal officials as it is; no sport wants replacement officials.  After all, it does not take instant replay to tell: replacement officials ruin the sport they attempt to call.

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Kill the Referee (A Roger Goodell Production)