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NFL Open Thread: Fail Mary Day

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10 years out from this epochal event:

The embarrassing part of the Fail Mary wasn’t that the replacement refs got the call wrong. They did, of course—even the game’s referee later admitted the Seattle Seahawks’ game-winning touchdown should have been a Green Bay Packers game-ending interception, and the NFL acknowledged there should have been an offensive pass interference call on the play. But officials miss calls all the time, in every league in every sport in every country. You can find articles about the NFL’s “officiating problem,” but you can also find articles about the NBA’s officiating problem, and MLB’s umpiring problem, and the NHL’s officiating problem, and so on and so forth. To err is human—and zebra.

No, the embarrassing part of the Fail Mary was the confusion, the chaos, the lack of control—all of it written on the faces of overmatched replacement refs, broadcast live to the nation on Monday Night Football. The embarrassing part was that everybody involved knew they were wrong and knew they couldn’t fix it. A referee’s main job is to get the call right, but maybe their more important job is to act like they know what they’re doing. And the replacement refs absolutely could not.

Ahead of the 2012 season, the NFL locked out its normal officials, a group represented by the NFL Referees Association. The NFL had made a calculated gamble: The refs’ demands were relatively paltry—additional expenditures of roughly $3.3 million per year, at a time when Roger Goodell was making $44 million per year—but fans universally hate referees, booing and disrespecting them even when their calls are correct. So, the league seemed to figure, why meet the officials’ demands when nobody would miss them?

But from the opening coin toss, it was clear the replacement officials were overmatched. Literally—a replacement ref mishandled the coin toss of the first game of the preseason. These officials, some retirees, some from the lowest ranks of organized football, lacked skill and professionalism. The NFL had to pull one official from working a Saints game hours before kickoff when it learned that he regularly posted on his Facebook page about his unabashed Saints fandom.

Distaste with the replacement refs slowly built over the first three weeks of the 2012 season as players and coaches recognized they were working with inferior officials. In one game, the refs helped the Titans seal a win by marking off 27 yards on a 15-yard penalty in overtime, putting them in range for a game-winning field goal. (The penalty was committed on Tennessee’s 44-yard line; the officials enforced it from Detroit’s 44.) “Players are getting more agitated and coaches are getting more agitated,” said officiating guru Mike Pereira in a New York Times article published on Monday, September 24, 2012. “Week 2 was a disaster,” Pereira continued. “Week 3 is the Titanic.”

Fucking up badly enough that the NFL had to stop using scabs and the Packers get screwed? Win-win!

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