Not to put too fine a point on it, but word that the National Football League will begin the regular season with replacement officials is a sign of the owners’ arrogance, and a reminder what wimps the networks are when it comes to dealing with sports’ biggest cash cow.
Given the billions the networks pay for rights to televise football, one might think they would want a grade A, undiluted product to kick off the season. Yet the owners have discovered time and again — as they did during the most recent player lockout — that whatever indignities are heaped upon fans, there’s little chance they won’t come back as soon as the dinner bell sounds.
Referees, obviously, don’t have anywhere close to the leverage players do. Nobody tunes in to see a really well-identified holding penalty. But they’re obviously on the first team for a reason, and some of the preseason griping by coaches and players indicates having replacements could have an impact on games.
What’s clear is that with the billions the league rakes in from its TV deals, owners should have been able to put together a package that would mollify the refs without it coming to this. As for the networks, as usual when it comes to major sports franchises, they’re sitting around with their thumbs in their ears, while the effect of replacement-refs debate becomes just another item about which the sport’s talking heads can blather.
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In the case of players vs. owners, the conventional wisdom was nobody cares about millionaires vs. billionaires, which is doubtless true. And while the referees aren’t exactly in either tax bracket, the league can act with impunity knowing as soon as the action begins, fans will forget about the distractions and be ready for some football.
Or, as Eli Wallach said in “The Magnificent Seven,” “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”