As the NFL drowned in angry noise the first month of the season, customers wailing about the incompetence of the substitute-teacher referees while the media howled about “integrity” and “credibility” and other things that didn’t matter, a little something got lost, as it always does when we find a way to soak our entertainment in morality.
This was really good for business.
How blessed a place does the NFL occupy in the marketplace when it can endure weeks of bitching and messiness and actually end up in a better place at the end of the unholy transaction? It is like watching BP spilling oil in the Gulf of Mexico and, instead of needing to sell $10 billion in assets to cover settlements and clean-up while its CEO is displaced, somehow figuring out a way to profit off a very public incompetence.
Scandal can be crippling in sports, as Penn State can tell you. But here’s when you want it: When it doesn’t lose you customers or money or anything real in terms of reputation, and the scandal can be fixed quickly in a way that leaves your product as beloved as ever. Look at this ref mess with the clarity of retrospect. The angry noise is as gone as those fake referees now, so all we really had those first few weeks was A) a pro-wrestling story line that made our weekly consumption crazier and more dramatic, B) a new appreciation for referees we never before considered appreciating, and C) the best television ratings the sport has ever seen.
Football was No. 1 in every TV market with a team the first three weeks of the season. That has never happened before, ever, in America’s most popular sport. Even though it was after midnight, ESPN’s SportsCenter after the Green Bay-Seattle fiasco was the highest rated in 17 years. That makes all our outrage feel kind of counterfeit, truth be told, given that we would have watched the games even if rodeo clowns were doing the officiating (they kind of were, when you think about it). Whether you were laughing or angry, this was entertaining.
Consider this: If the Packers had actually done what they discussed, kneeling on plays this Sunday as a form of protest, you know what would have happened to all that faux outrage directed at the NFL and the refs? It would have shifted. It would have fallen with the weight of a million anvils on the Packers themselves … for actually doing something on behalf of our outrage ... but denying us our weekly heroin fix in doing so. That’s right. The Packers would actually be doing something meaningful with their outrage, and we would have killed them for it because they would have been staining our beloved Sundays with their damn stupid principles.
All that loud player outrage? That was total nonsense, too. First of all, the game was no less safe with the replacement refs. Violent, unsafe hits are going to happen in a split second regardless of who is officiating. The real refs are better at calling penalties on those plays, but they are no better at preventing them.
Secondly, the replacement refs merely allowed the players to unleash publicly all those resentments they have built up against commissioner Roger Goodell. But it wasn’t really about the officiating. It was about a cheap opportunity to crush the sport’s unpopular czar for all his overzealous punishments in the past. Goodell was but a puppet piñata in this ref fight, carrying out the wishes of his union-busting owners, but did you hear one player go after an owner — the real instigators of this mess? The owners were hiding behind Goodell, making him the face of this, but not a single player dared challenge the guy signing his checks.