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Jackel: Blame owners, not officials

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By now, most of the 24 penalties called by replacement NFL officials hopelessly over their heads Monday night before a national television audience have been dissected on sports radio talk shows, at the office water coolers and through social media.

The whole shameful, embarrassing affair deprived the Green Bay Packers of a victory over the Seattle Seahawks that they had seemingly earned the hard way. And only time will tell how crucial that undeserved loss will be to the Packers in December, when teams are jockeying for playoff position.

The far larger issue, of course, is this: What are these “Sunday Bloody Sunday” tragedies of errors by the replacement officials doing to the integrity of an iconic sport?

What we witnessed was so outlandish that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who became a national icon for his role in effectively ending collective bargaining for most public workers in this state, tweeted for the return of union officials Tuesday morning after what he reported was a sleep-deprived night.

But let’s stop dreaming up invective-drenched adjectives to describe the replacement officials who are relegating an esteemed billion-dollar industry into a Three Stooges film festival.

Yes, we can paint these replacement officials with a broad stroke of incompetence. But asking them to handle this enormous undertaking is not unlike asking a novice pilot who just completed his first solo flight in a single-engine Piper Cub to take over the controls of a Boeing 747 in heavy turbulence.

Instead, re-direct your contempt to the NFL owners, who reside in an out-of-touch world of private jets, stretch limousines, luxury boxes and lucrative bottom lines. It would cost each of the 31 NFL owners — the Packers, of course, are publicly owned — less than $1 million to satisfy the demand of striking officials and begin the healing process of what had become a fractured sport.

Yet, these owners are giving very little. And the official NFL statement Tuesday that it was correct not to overturn Golden Tate’s ridiculous game-winning reception for the Seahawks, during which two pivotal officials were out of position, underscores the standpoint by the league — and, by extension, owners — that there is no urgency with this matter.

No, the owners won’t pony up to satisfy the world’s most skilled football officials who are the foundation of the game’s integrity. But they certainly have the finances for so many other undertakings.

Consider this statement by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones when reflecting on the $1.2 billion stadium he opened in 2010.

“I could have built it for $800 million,” Jones was quoted as saying at the time. “But I wanted to design a ‘wow’ factor so that an Al Michaels could be sitting there, and basically through his talent make the fans at home on television feel like that they were right there at the game, a part of what was going on at the game.”

You got your wish, Jerry. How’s that working for you now?

But should we be surprised? The same owners who give lip service to the mushrooming issue of concussions in the NFL are pushing to expand the regular season by two games. That’s still on the table. What’s already been put into place is a full schedule of Thursday night games this season, forcing battered players who can hardly drag themselves out of bed on Monday mornings to go at it again just four days later.

Former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who is just 53, often cannot remember why he walked into a room after enduring so much head trauma during his career. Meanwhile, the portfolio of owners only grows fatter and fatter.

“The officiating budget is .385 of one percent of NFL revenues,” said Barry Mano, publisher of Racine-based Referee magazine, which he founded in 1976. “Now they (the owners) have gotten themselves into a position where we have this trainwreck that we’re witnessing.

“I was asked about replacement officials and I characterized it this way: They are a group of well-paid volunteers who are in a failing experiment. They were asked, they volunteered and, guess what? It’s not working.”

Mano does see a silver lining in that the perception of union officials, so often the scorn of armchair quarterbacks, is likely to be raised exponentially once they return.

“This has laid bare the extraordinary value that the regular referees bring to professional football,” Mano said. “I think everybody is seeing that now. They’re not just enforcers of rules.

“They do so much more that almost goes hidden — the flow of the game, the management of the players, the management of the sideline. Now that you see that stuff isn’t there, you realize the value that those men bring.”

So will the debacle of Monday night finally bring this to a head? Perhaps, but don’t count on it. Because with the issue of money comes the issue of ego.

Consider this story about the late Tex Schramm, representing the league, and the late Gene Upshaw, representing the players’ union, during negotiations one year.

“Tex Schramm turned to Upshaw and said, ‘You need to understand something, Gene. You guys are the cattle and we’re the ranchers,’” Mano said. “And I think that’s a flavor here.”

Peter Jackel is a reporter for The Journal Times. You can reach Peter at (262) 631-1703 or by email at peter.jackel@journaltimes.com.

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