The Sociology of the NFL Replacement Officials

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John Fox
Courtesy of NFL.com

Those of you watching the Monday Night Football game last night between the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons witnessed first hand the thin line between social order and chaos along which all of us tread on a daily basis.  The fragility of the ephemeral ties that hold together any social situation become visible only when things go very wrong, and go very wrong they did last night in Atlanta.

For those of you not mildly obsessed with football, this year the NFL refused to give their referees the money they were asking to be paid.  They locked out the regular officials and went with replacements.  As Mike Tirico, commentator for ESPN, described last night, the current NFL refs are not like the second string players, who would be a little less spectacular than the first string, but still serviceable.  The second string would be the referees for Division I college football, but those guys (and they are guys) are a little busy right now, and uninterested in violating their sense of loyalty to the real NFL referees, anyway.  Instead, the NFL had to go after the fourth or firth string guys, referees whose experience includes the Lingerie Football League (which I was deeply disappointed to discover is something that really exists) and Division III college football.

Week One of the season with the replacement referees seemed at least tolerable.  Perhaps they weren’t really any worse than the professionals.  But in many of the Week Two games, and especially in last night’s Monday Night matchup, a showcase event for the league, you had the sense that somewhere Ed Hochuli and the rest of the regular NFL officials were laughing with glee.

There was much more fighting in last night’s game than usual, a fumble call that took six minutes to resolve, a first quarter that lasted an hour, the image of John Fox (head coach of the Broncos) yelling until he was red-faced at the refs and then waving his hand dismissively at their calls.  There were missed calls and calls the replacement officials got wrong, and calls that were overturned by the same official who had made them.  But more importantly than that, there was clearly a breakdown in the trust and faith that keep an NFL football game from turning into what it always has the potential to become–twenty-two large, pissed off men beating the crap out of each other.

Social life, as sociologists understand it, is a deeply cooperative endeavor.  Almost any social situation is dependent upon the cooperation of all the parties involved, on a tacit agreement on what one sociologist–Erving Goffman–called the definition of the situation.  When I sit down in my college classroom, my students and I all agree that we are in a classroom.  Based on that definition of the situation, students allow me to get up and talk, while they sit quietly in their chairs and listen.  If their definition of the situation were different–say they understood they were at a party instead of in a classroom–chaos would ensue.  They would not sit in their chairs, nor would they be quiet, and they certainly would not listen to me explain sociological concepts to them.

In the classroom setting, the students trust that I am who I say I am–a professor with a Ph.D. in sociology–and that I am competent to do my job.  They’ve never seen my Ph.D.  They weren’t with me in graduate school watching over my shoulder to make sure I learned everything I needed to learn.  They walk into the classroom on the first day and take it on faith that I am competent to teach the class.  From that point on over the course of the semester, I can lose a little of that faith, I can increase it, or I can maintain it.  But if I lose it altogether, bad things will happen, as anyone who’s seen a classroom out of control can tell you.

On an NFL football field, there is even more at stake because of the violence that is inherent in the game.  Most of the time, players accept the definition of the situation.  They are playing a game of football.  The referees are in charge of telling them when a play is over, and they should therefore stop.  The referees dictate when it is acceptable to hurl yourself at another human being, and when it is not.  The referees say what kind of contact is safe, and what is not.  What gives the referees such power over men who by and large could pick them up and pile drive them into the turf without even breaking a sweat?

It’s not the whistles, or at least not only the whistles.  What gives NFL officials this power over men who are so clearly physically stronger than them is trust and faith based on their authority.  The whistles, the stripes, the flags and the hats are all symbols of the officials’ position of authority over the game.  Authority is a kind of power that comes from institutions and in this case that institution is the league itself.  The NFL as an institution puts the referees in charge, and most of the time, they are, in fact, in charge.

So what’s happened now?  The replacement officials have the stripes, the hats and the whistles.  They’ve been put there by the NFL.  And for a while, maybe a brief period in Week One, it looked like that was enough.

NFL officials
Cartoon by Mike Thompson,
courtesy of Detroit Free Press

But between Week One and Week Two, something happened.  Something changed.  The trust and faith that the players and coaches had in the replacement officials eroded.  Watching Monday Night’s game, you might conclude that it has altogether disappeared.  Part of the definition of the situation shifted, in that both players and coaches no longer seemed to agree that the replacement officials are qualified to tell them when a play is over, when a play is legal, and when a play is too dangerous.  The implicit agreement that the referees are generally trustworthy disappeared, and the possibility for what an NFL game always could become was suddenly there for the world to see on their hi-def screens.

The question of whether the replacement officials actually are any worse at making calls than their regular counterparts at this point becomes irrelevant.  If no one believes that they are trustworthy–that you can depend upon them to get possession calls in the middle of a pile after a fumbled ball right–then they simply are worse.  The Thomas theorem in sociology (perhaps the only theorem that sociology has as a discipline) tells us that what people believe to be real, is real in its consequences.  If NFL players and coaches believe that the replacement officials are incompetent, doddering idiots, than the consequences will reflect that reality.  Whether they are incompetent, doddering idiots ceases to matter.

And so the result is Monday Night’s game, which in moments looked as if it might devolve to such levels of chaos that everyone would have to throw their hands up in disgust and go home.  As sociologists, this is a dramatic lesson in the potential for disorder that always exists beneath the surface of social life.  It is a wonderful example of how faith and trust is part of what makes the world function on a daily basis and not just in the NFL.  I trust that the food my waitress brings me will not poison me, even though I didn’t observe closely while anyone made it.  I trust that everyone else in their cars will also stop when the traffic light is red.  I trust that when I put a letter in the mailbox a whole chain of other people I’ve never met will somehow ensure that it gets to the place I intend it to go.

I’m not sure if Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, has learned this important lesson about social life.  If neither coaches nor players have faith in the replacement officials, it’s just a matter of time before something even worse than Monday Night occurs.  Players will be injured.  Officials will be injured.  But more importantly to Mr. Goodell, who after all is the head of the most profitable sports organization in the United States, the quality of his product will decline and his profits will suffer.  No one wants to watch a game marred by an endless string of instant replays and reviews, a trend that seemed to be bothersome even before the replacement officials.  We all love our football, but we don’t want the first quarter to take an hour to play.

Of course, there are always moments when we distrust the abilities of a certain official, in a certain call, in a certain game.  But to feel that the game is no longer in trustworthy hands isn’t really good for anyone, including the fans.  And you don’t have to be a sociologist to figure that out.

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