With officials privy to secrets, NFL strikes again

September 19, 1999|By John Steadman

All the show-stopping incredibility of the NFL manifests itself -- so unnecessarily -- in the latest invention it has thrust upon its game. There's now a special privy, of sorts, where the officials go, upon request, to relieve themselves of a bad decision.

The newest contrivance, little booths on opposite sides of the field, resemble outhouses, which were used before modern plumbing came to the country. The referee, in certain emergencies, is required to leave the scrimmage zone, where the hitting is going on, to examine the televised replay of a call that one of the coaches may have disagreed with.

Once inside the cubicle, the officials draw the curtain to assure themselves privacy and to avail themselves of a more defining or contrasting look at the picture of the questionable play. In some respects, it resembles a sentry box or a confessional. Are they about to seek, on such an occasion, absolution from commissioner Paul Tagliabue to rid their souls of what may have been a sinful decision?

Meanwhile, everything stops. The game shuts down. What was once regarded as one of the fastest sports played on two feet (with apologies to lacrosse) is halted while the referee goes into executive session with himself. Just another infuriating interruption, coupled with TV timeouts, that reduces football to a crawl.

This latest gimmick -- the film booth -- is a bad reflection on the team owners. Twenty-eight of them voted to install what the league likes to term an officiating aid. But the three owners who rejected the whole proposal deserve special applause. So proper credit can be documented, the "lonesome three," who had the good sense to be against the plan, were Wellington Mara of the New York Giants, Bill Bidwill of the Arizona Cardinals and Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals.

They are so called old-line owners who realize the integrity of the game has certain aspects that shouldn't be altered. Too bad the rest of the owners, instead of falling asleep at the meeting last March 17, didn't follow the wisdom of Mara, Bidwill and Brown.

The game officials, headed by the referees, have to be embarrassed by being asked to enter the outhouse and render a decision. The officials aren't omnipotent and don't claim to be, but they are outstanding individuals, men of the highest character, and do their jobs much better than the players or coaches do theirs.

The outhouses and the electronics system cost the NFL a reported $10 million to install, an outlandish expenditure. It does offer the referee the option, during the time spent in seclusion, to talk on the phone with Jerry Seeman, senior director of officiating, to clarify next week's assignment or to confirm an after-game dinner reservation.

This pause is far from a thrilling moment, one that won't make a team's highlight reel, as the action stops and the referee adjourns to his sideline privy to view the film. The officials ought to take matters into their own hands and insist they are not going to be embarrassed by making any more visits to the outhouse. In public yet.

If necessary, they should refuse to take the field for the kickoff unless the idea is terminated. The NFL is cheapening its product and making stooges out of the officiating crews.

If the officials are going to be held up to such ridicule, then the coaches and players ought to be isolated on film, for all to see, when they call the wrong formation or miss a block or tackle. Don't put the officials in a second-guess position under any circumstances.

Much of the mystique in sports originates with the spectators debating whether it was a right or wrong call. That's the intrinsic human element being defined. It should be preserved and never taken out of football, unless the players are going to become robots controlled by coaches toying with a computer board on the sidelines.

Or maybe the coaches and players could have their particular open-air outhouses, with a half-moon sign designating their locations, where they could put on a dunce cap and stand in a corner of the end zone to examine their own mistakes.

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