August 30, 02012
For quite some time now there’s been a common theme running rampant through the entertainment industry. It’s founded on the premise that “regular people” can do the jobs of professionals. This has been substantiated by the reality show craze. Why bother with trained actors when you can get people off the street? Networks pander to an audience that’s dying to see a version of itself on the screen.
That’s good enough for the reality biz. It’s fun to see attention-starved, emotionally-unstable people come undone before the camera. Well, it’s not really fun. It’s actually pretty gross, but it’s certainly lucrative.
When football season opens on September 9, a bunch of regular guys will officiate the games. We’ll get a chance to see how lucrative it will be. Probably not very. My guess is that it won’t be entertaining either. And depending on the number of missed or blown calls that may affect wins, losses, and jobs, it could be extremely gross.
Sport falls under the guise of entertainment, but there’s a point where professional football and show business diverge. The audience that regularly tunes in to America’s Got Talent wouldn’t want to watch its neighbors wearing its team’s uniforms on Sundays. America doesn’t have that much talent—at least not enough for Ray-Ray, Pookie and Bubba to pass themselves off as a credible football team.
Show business works best when the viewer suspends his beliefs. A trained and talented actor can make the audience believe he’s a professional wide receiver, like Nick Nolte did in the movie North Dallas Forty.
We rely on the suspension of belief to make sense of things—even in real football. Right now, guys are getting cut from teams. In order to process it, we have to believe that when a player gets cut, it’s because he wasn’t good enough to make the roster. That makes sense, right? But if that were really the case, any player who was ever cut from a team would simply disappear, permanently expelled from the football universe. He certainly wouldn’t end up on another roster. But that happens all the time.
That’s because with players, it’s about more than just ability. Everyone who goes to camp has ability. But there’s a bottom line to contend with. An NFL roster contains a finite number of people, 53 to be exact. When there’s two people with equal ability, one of them has to go.
Kurt Warner wasn’t cut by the Packers because he wasn’t good enough to play quarterback. It was because the Packers already had three quarterbacks. Obviously Warner could play, but there just wasn’t room there. But there was room in St. Louis. You know that story.
James Harrison was signed by both the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. Both teams were known for the strength of their linebackers. So Harrison was cut by both teams. But it wasn’t because he wasn’t a real football player. He just needed a spot and time to develop into one of the league’s best defenders, which he did.
When the replacement officials take the field on opening day, we won’t be able to suspend our beliefs. We can’t pretend there won’t be consequences to their actions. The integrity of the game is at stake. The replacement officials are gonna make bad calls because they aren’t prepared to do the job. The speed of the professional game is what makes officiating such a demanding task. The fan at home has the luxury of seeing every single play in slow motion or some kind of frame capture. When that’s the case, your perspective is clear and your judgment, flawless. That’s not reality.
Truth is, when James Harrison comes off the edge in real time, he does so very swiftly. And when an offensive tackle tries to stop Harrison by holding him, he does it just as swiftly. And the umpire who sees that hold has to make a quick, authoritative decision. Then he has to stick with it. In every game I’ve seen this preseason, there’s been at least one long, drama-laden conference after a routine penalty.
Everything about the game is fast, including the pace of the season. This isn’t the 162-game major league baseball marathon or the 82-game NBA grind. There are only 16 games to work with. There’s no making up for a five game deficit late in the season. The playoff matrix begins to take shape in September. So starting with week one, any and all mistakes—by players, coaches, and referees— will be magnified and have repercussions well into the season.
In the meantime opening day will provide an opportunity for a lot of people. It’s a chance for replacement officials to prove that they can do the job. It’s also a chance for anyone to sink deep into the barcalounger and grumble to no one in particular, “I could do that.”
In this case, perhaps you could.
But is that a good thing?
Alan Grant was a four-year starter and all-conference player for Stanford University. He played five years in the National Football League with the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco Forty Niners, Cincinnati Bengals, and Washington Redskins. He has written for ESPN the Magazine and The Postgame, and appears frequently on radio and television.