This was previously published on New Plateaus.
Continuing the theme this week of looking at the evidence, let’s weigh in on the recently-resolved NFL referee uproar.
Since the preseason of this NFL season, one topic has dominated sports pages, airwaves, and the Internet: the replacement referees. As the referee union and the NFL were at odds in negotiating their contract, a whole new crew in zebra attire was needed to fill the void while talks stalled. Almost immediately, concerns from fans, media, and players echoed and officiating was under an ever-watchful eye. Inevitably, the refs made bad calls, but what was worse, many cracked under pressure and quickly demonstrated an overall incompetence.
Each week there were some egregious examples. In the Vikings-49ers game the refs mistakenly granted the 49ers an extra timeout. (This also happened in the Seahawks-Cardinals game the week before.) Key extra yardage was given to the Tennessee Titans after a penalty, putting them in field goal range to win. In the Ravens-Patriots game, there was a phantom pass interference call, and a overturned interception led to an easily-audible “BS” chant from the crowd in Baltimore. The games were getting out of hand. The icing on the cake was the Packers-Seahawks Monday night game when a bad call directly led to the game’s outcome.
Thankfully, this week, the league and the regular refs got their contract negotiated, and we can put this mess behind us.
Now. Here’s where we start to delve—because while it’s easy to just see and say that bad reffing led to the replacements’ ouster, there was more at work here than just their actions. And if we can look past the bad reffing, there’s an underlying and important lesson here in the power of hype. Check it out:
From the get-go, there was reasonable curiosity about how these new refs would do. Once they demonstrated their inability, people got nervous. More than that, the players, coaches, media, and fans took action and pounced.
On the field it was like a classroom vs. the substitute teacher. Coaches and players pushed the boundaries to see what they could get away with. In the face of all this pressure, some refs became even more shaken, and the situation snowballed. By the third week of the regular season, several coaches had been penalized and fined for touching, yelling, and coming out on the field at refs. Coaches like the Harbaugh brothers worsened the problem with their aggressiveness and then acted like they were being victims of unfair treatment.
Off the field was even more interesting. Many in the media couldn’t get enough of this brewing issue and covered it in a most dramatic fashion. Rarely was it: “I think the NFL should settle with the regular refs.” It was always, “This is a joke. This is pandemonium. The NFL is royally screwing this up.” A lot of fear. A lot of arrogance, too.
I heard it in the voice of KFAN talker, Dan Barrierro, whose usual level-headedness and independence has gained him a rich following and reputation, but whose tendency over this story was to repeatedly remind listeners why the NFL is wrong and he is right. This “piling on” seemed similar to any instance one disparages and makes fun of another person or institution: it provided a sense of satisfaction for the criticizer. Barrierro’s show became a chance for the host and listeners to verbally ransack the NFL as one gossips about someone having an affair.
Many in the media targeted the NFL, revealing our country’s attachment to football. We react strongest to that which we care most about. So we had the hyperbolic, sky-is-falling, doomsday narrative that the NFL was under threat by this fiasco, that it was being destroyed by this problem.
Coming together, the players bought into this hype. In reaction to the Monday night game, Packer players weren’t so much athletes, but actors, playing the part of someone who underwent a serious tragedy. They played the victim well—morose, defeated, an “I just don’t know what to do, man” demeanor. It was as if a serious injustice on par of Plessy v. Ferguson took place.
The drastic exaggerations continued the following day. The Internet buzzed with “worst call ever” all over newspaper websites, The New York Daily News reading “ … scab ref made arguably the worst call in NFL history.”
Worst call ever? Not even close. There were two players fighting for the football—albeit one had control and one didn’t. But the phantom pass interference call the night before in the Ravens-Patriots game was worse, and how many other phantom interference or erroneous roughing the kicker penalties have been called in the history of football? I bet if someone looked back on all the footage, you’d find 1000 calls worse than the Monday night call. Changing sports, and just off the top of my head, Joe Mauer hit what would have been a double in a crucial late stage of a Twins-Yankees playoff game a few years back. The ball was ruled foul when it was a good two-three feet in play. How do you screw that up?! That call was way worse and during the playoffs.
The things people believe, the reality they assume when hype is afoot is worthy to notice.
The first month of the NFL season is a case study for sociology text books. I have to wonder how it didn’t cross the writers’ and editors’ minds that what they were printing and publishing were exaggerations and outright inaccuracies. I have to wonder how differently things would have gone in this case—in countless other causes and issues—if hype weren’t such a factor.
It’s important to appreciate, because when it’s not about sports, hype can be a dangerous phenomena or even a tool used by others to dictate our thoughts and actions on matters much more serious. It serves us, then, to use these less-serious examples to be more self-conscious and separate ourselves from being led astray by the power of hype-fever.
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Image credit: shawncampbell/Flickr