Our nation came together Tuesday morning over a collective outrage, an egregious injustice, a nationally televised attack upon all that is decent and fair in America. As must surely be clear now to the National Football League, if you really want to feel the collective wrath of the American people, just start messing with their football.
Late Monday night, and well into Tuesday, the country aimed its anger directly at the NFL, the beloved behemoth of American sports franchises, over the blown call on the game’s final play that gave the Seattle Seahawks the winning touchdown over the Green Bay Packers on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”
Three weeks’ worth of criticism and angst over the subpar performances of the NFL’s replacement referees – filling in for the league’s regular ones, who have been locked out by the league in a labor standoff – reached a boiling point when the refs appeared to blow the biggest call of the game, awarding the Seahawks a touchdown on the final play, and thus a 14-12 win, when everyone else in the country seemed to know immediately it was an interception for the Packers.
With the league already teetering on the edge of chaos and mutiny over the state of the officiating over the first three weeks of its regular season, Monday night’s fiasco carried the distinct feeling of a tipping point. The story led NBC’s “Today” show, exploded across Twitter and dominated discourse around water coolers and radio dials.
Not only had the three-month lockout of the referees by the NFL’s owners – primarily over the officials’ pensions – reached a critical juncture, where something had to be done for the good of the game and the safety of the players; it also felt as if the NFL was collapsing into itself.
“DISGRACE!” screamed the back page of The New York Post.
“Nightmare scenario,” blared the headline on the SportsIllustrated.com website.
“The Straw That Broke the NFL’s Back,” touted one of the headlines at ESPN.com.
The NFL’s locked-out referees, although technically part-time employees, undergo rigorous training to master the league’s infamously complex rule book. Their replacements, largely a collection of officials who work high school and low-level college games, have often seemed out of their depth during the first weeks of the season. But no games had been blatantly decided on a blown call – until Monday night.
With the Seahawks trailing, 12-7 and eight seconds remaining, quarterback Russell Wilson launched a 24-yard “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone. Packers safety M.D. Jennings appeared to wrest control of the ball from Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate – an interception – but one of the referees near the play threw up the signal for a touchdown.
As players, coaches, fans and TV viewers waited anxiously, the referees reviewed replays for some 10 minutes – and still got it wrong, saying Tate had shared possession of the ball, which, by rule, favors the offensive player. The touchdown stood, the Seahawks had prevailed by a 14-12 score, and the universe, at least as measured in terms of Twitter and talking-head outrage, was about to explode.
“I love this league and love the game of football,” tweeted New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, one of the most widely respected players in the game, “but tonight’s debacle hurts me greatly. This is NOT the league we’re supposed to represent.”
An outraged Jon Erpenbach, a Democratic Wisconsin state senator, tweeted the office telephone number of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell three times, adding, “If tonights game doesnt make the NFL settle with the real refs this season will be a joke.”
By midday Tuesday, the reaction across the game was only slightly more muted. The NFL released a statement shortly after noon upholding the referees’ decision (but adding that Tate should have been flagged for pass interference for shoving a Packers defender on his way up).
The statement gave no indication of when the league might settle its dispute with its regular officials, or whether there was any sense of urgency to do so. However, the NFL and representatives for the referees were said to be negotiating Tuesday, although people familiar with the talks said they had been scheduled before Monday night’s episode.