NFL referee debacle can’t topple a sport embedded in nation’s psyche

We have a national drug. We are addicted and the dealers know it. We cannot turn away or say no. We have a choice, but not really. We have no interest in rehab, because no substitute exists for the thrill this drug gives us — for how that high makes us feel.

Sporadically, something happens that would pull us away, lead us to say, “Enough is enough,” make us think we want to quit.

But then another weekend comes around, the game kicks off, and it is all that matters for a little while.

We huff and puff about all that is wrong with this drug, about how much it costs, but who are we kidding? We keep coming back because we know that sports, even when broken, still provide our fix.

The reaction to how the Monday Night Football game ended has consumed the national narrative, and not just among sports fans, even reaching the presidential campaign trail. It has been fascinating to see and hear, because it speaks of the power of the NFL (more than any other, our drug of choice) and how much we love it even as we shake our fists with outrage.

The NFL of course has locked out its “real” referees and other stripe-shirted officials in a labor dispute, and we fans were supposed to barely notice and hardly care.

That changed dramatically, preposterously, as Monday’s game ended, when the replacement officials missed a call in the end zone that would have meant a Packers victory, and then made an erroneous call that instead meant a victory for the Seahawks.

What ensued — understandably in Green Bay and more interestingly elsewhere — has been an uprising so great it spurred the NFL and its officials to reach an agreement late Wednesday night to finally end the lockout.

Fans, commentators and even players and coaches piled on, reacting to the NFL’s use of second-rate officials in a way Americans might react if the flag was changed from stars and stripes.

Blasphemy! Sacrilege! Grave pronouncements since would have us think the integrity of the NFL quakes. That “trust” is shattered. That Monday night was a tipping point from which football could suffer an exodus of angry fans.

Nope. Won’t happen. And wouldn’t have, even if the faux-officials had continued for several more weeks.

First, have we quickly forgotten that the “real” NFL officials hardly have been impervious to controversy?

nobody’s perfect

Funny enough, the same Seahawks fans cheering Monday night’s unearned, tainted victory remain convinced to this day that questionable (read: bad) officiating cost Seattle the 2005 season’s Super Bowl against Pittsburgh.

Controversies involving “real” officials have included a botched coin-flip to begin overtime on Thanksgiving, a thrown flag that injured a player’s eye and ended his career, and an erroneous call that negated a Giants touchdown in the 2000 season’s Super Bowl.

This isn’t to absolve these replacement officials. They are inferior, as clearly as Monday’s game-ending call was an outrageous blunder. The league’s owners have done right by apparently solving this to get the best guys back on the field.

But the far larger point is that our love affair with the NFL — augmented by designer drugs called gambling and fantasy football — override all of the bad calls and $8 hot dogs and player arrests and concussion scandals and Bountygate litigation.

We can rail against owners’ or players’ gall and greed, we can see lockouts and strikes as nothing less than a breach of public trust, and we can think Monday night was the worse thing ever. But we’ll be back. Won’t we?

It might linger with Packers fans, but that Monday debacle is a grain of sand on the NFL beachhead. That and a dozen more episodes like it will not negatively impact TV ratings, attendance, jersey sales or anything else the NFL uses to gauge success.

My fellow elders might recall how a strike wiped out half of the 1982 football season and how angry fans were threatening a boycott. Again in 1987, the NFL used union-busting “replacement players.” Suddenly, the Dolphins quarterback was not Dan Marino, but someone named Kyle Mackey. An outrage! That, too, was supposed to cripple the game and have lasting effects.

Nope. Football is fine. Bigger than ever.

One need only glance back across recent history in any sport to see that what caused such consternation at the time disappeared like sand castles smoothed by waves. Like something barely ever there at all.

Basketball saw labor strife cut its 1998-99 season in half and truncate this past NBA season to 66 games. Oh, and wasn’t there an officiating scandal just a few years ago? (Remember Tim Donaghy?)

Basketball is fine. Thriving.

FANS always return

Baseball was supposed to have crossed some dramatic historical line when the entire 1994 postseason including the World Series was canceled. It was seen as sacrilege. Baseball was rocked again by a years-long Steroids Era that swallowed legends such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — a cheating scandal not entirely gone away.

Baseball is fine. Buoyant.

Hockey canceled its entire 2004-05 season in a labor dispute, amid ominous declarations of permanent damage done. Now the NHL is back at it with its fourth work stoppage since the 1990s, an acrimonious lockout that could delay the start of the 2012-13 season or even erase it entirely.

Hockey will be fine, too. Bet on it.

It isn’t even just pro sports that survive just about anything because it is our drug. How many years have playoff-obsessed college football fans whined and railed against the BCS while simultaneously making the sport more popular than ever?

Nothing can kill sports because we addicted fans are more resilient than any other breed of consumer.

Think about it. Half of all fans are disappointed by every result. About 98 percent — all but those cheering a champion — are disappointed by every season. That thickens the skin. It grows the kind of tough, get-’em-next-year resolve embodied by Cubs fans waiting a century for another championship (or Dolphins fans waiting 40 years).

The nature of sports fans is to keep believing in our teams even when they give us little reason, and to keep forgiving our sports even when they make us angry.

See, it’s almost the weekend again. And we need another fix.

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