Throwing Kleenex at the couch

Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2003

I don't know why the idea of full-time NFL referees seems so funny.

Maybe it's because I can't get a picture out of my head. In it, a guy runs around his living room in a striped uniform yelling ''false start,'' and throwing Kleenex at the upholstered furniture.

Over and over again.

Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell has been around football as long as leather. He has an even funnier picture in his head:

''I just want to know what they're going to do for five days a week -- eye exercises?

The easy way out of this latest officiating mess would be for the NFL chiefs to declare that all officials will be full-time league employees beginning next season, and stop there. Then they could cross their fingers, hope a ref never blows another call and go back to counting money.

It would also be the cheapest way out. Remember that nasty little labor dispute two summers ago? The one where the NFL's unionized referees wanted to be paid the same as their baseball, basketball and hockey counterparts, and the league responded by hiring replacements at $2,000 a game?

Well, at the peak of the hostilities, the two sides were only about $20 million apart on a five-year deal. The NFL has a license -- several, actually -- to print money. Don't you think headquarters would have jumped at the chance to vaporize all the officiating messes for a measly $4 million more a year? Besides, for the kind of money a veteran baseball ump makes (about $140,000 last year), most of the NFL's 119 zebras indicated they'd be willing to work full-time.

But the only thing switching from part-time to full-time help buys the NFL is time. And it doesn't begin to address the real problem: instant replay.

(If this were the NFL, you'd be entitled to a challenge at this point. But not in real life -- put the hankie back in your pocket.)

Ever since 1999, when the owners voted to bring replay back after a series of outrageously bad calls the season before, the league has been encouraging the myth that it's possible to get every call right. It's an impossible standard for the refs to meet.

Part of the argument for bringing replay back after a lapse of eight years was that technology had improved to the point where most arguments would be rendered moot. After further review, the opposite is true.

There are people in Buffalo who have been holding their breath for two years now, waiting in vain for the ''The Music City Miracle'' to be overturned. And it's nothing short of miraculous that the Oakland Raiders' fans didn't take hostages after the NFL was done explaining the ''tuck rule'' a year ago.

Knowing that full-time officials made those calls wouldn't have made any difference -- especially not after the aggrieved parties were force-fed replays confirming what they were convinced they'd seen in the first place.

The only thing more maddening than seeing referees blow a call once is waiting around to watch them do it again and again. The earliest replay can be killed is during the offseason. In the meantime, the league should tell stadium operators and its TV partners this weekend to show a replay once and move on.

That's how the rest of the world deals with bad breaks. Why should the NFL be any different?

There is nothing wrong with demanding a higher standard from officials. And the game has gotten much faster, so it can't hurt to ramp up the physical requirements for officiating as well.

And maybe memorizing passages from the rule book all 52 weeks a year will cut down on the embarrassing procedural mistakes refs make, like losing track of the number of timeouts and whether a coin lands heads or tails. Especially at the rate the league has been adding rules just to cover replay situations.

But I doubt it.

''It's the playoffs, and there is a lot at stake,'' Pittsburgh's Jason Gilden said after the timeout fiasco sent the Steelers home empty-handed from Tennessee. ''If anyone should be ready, it should be the referees. The players are going to show up and play. And in the playoffs, you're expected to rise to the occasion, am I right?''

Yet nobody gets it right all the time.

The week before his team opened the playoffs against the Falcons, Packers coach Mike Sherman worked on his game plan more hours than any sane full-time employee at another company would. He still made some ridiculous calls in the game.

Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey practiced plenty the week before his game with the 49ers. He still dropped a gimme touchdown pass. We could go on, but you get the point.

The real difference between those mistakes and the ones made by the refs is not how much time each put in beforehand, but how many times it turned up on the JumboTron afterward.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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