The New York Giants' preseason opener against the Jaguars on Friday night was one of the sloppier displays of professional sports you're liable to see on a television. Much of that had to do with the sloppy play of both teams, but the replacement officials the NFL is using while it continues to lock out its real officials in a contract dispute contributed to the mess as well. Giants players took note, and wide receiver Victor Cruz is hoping the officials' labor dispute gets resolved soon:
"We want to make sure we're getting the best calls and getting the best referees we can get on each and every game," Cruz said. "I actually heard one of the refs only reffed glorified high school games -- and I don't even know what that means, essentially. I just want to make sure we're getting the best guys out there reffing these games."
Last year, the NFL players' association had a similar labor dispute with the league, and players were locked out for much of the OTA portion of the year. The Giants didn't have their usual training camp in Albany in 2011, because of the logistics from the lockout. Cruz is sympathetic to the men and woman who are filling in.
"It's obviously tough for them because they have to get adjusted on the fly for refereeing NFL games," Cruz said.
Cruz is no complainer. He's as classy a player as the league has. And his last point is one I was trying to make on Twitter on Friday night: On the list of people to blame for this latest fiasco of NFL arrogance, the men (and woman) on the field making the calls rank right at the bottom. They are nervous. They are overwhelmed. They are unprepared. And none of that is their fault. If you want to take a staunchly pro-labor viewpoint and rip them for being scabs, that's fair. But it takes no guts whatsoever to rip them for not being up to the task the league has given them. It would be a far bigger story if they actually were.
No, the blame here lies, as it did a year ago when they locked out the players, with the NFL owners, for whom too much money is never enough. The NFL hasn't locked out its officials because it has to. It has locked them out because it can, at no cost to itself. The NFL's owners have more money than you or I can conceive. They could, if they wanted to, pay each of their officials $1 million per year and still quite easily afford gas for their yachts. But they run a business, and anyone who runs a business does so with the goal of getting what they want/need for as little as possible.
And the lockout is the technique the NFL owners have adopted for doing that. They lock out their employees for as long as they can afford to, hoping the employees come back and make the concessions they want. If they don't, by whatever date the league has decided is its limit, the league lets it be known that it's finally serious about negotiating, and a deal gets done before any real harm does. This is exactly what happened last year with the players -- the owners didn't negotiate seriously until the possibility of losing actual games and significant revenue became real to them. Heck, they weren't willing to cancel more than one preseason game over it.
This is different, because you can play the preseason games without the real officials. So the league can go deeper with this one if it wants to. And it clearly does. But anyone who thinks they're going to let these replacement refs take the field for a real regular-season game is also a potential customer for any bridges the owners might be looking to sell. The NFL doesn't abide embarrassment, and having the officiating in its national showcase game Sept. 5 look like last week's preseason officiating would be quite embarrassing. The officials should stand their ground in negotiations. If anything, the work of the replacements -- and the public's reaction to it -- helps their case against the league.
Where you, the NFL fan, makes a mistake in all of this is in believing for a second that the league and its owners care about you. Almost everything the league does this time of year, from charging full price for preseason games to allowing amateurs to officiate them, is screaming that you and your opinion don't matter. The owners aren't at any risk at all here. No division titles are being won and lost due to substandard officiating in August. No player evaluations are being affected by bad calls. Coaches will still base those calls on film and practice, not preseason stats. Literally nothing is happening that has any long-term effect on the game or, more importantly, the bottom line. So the owners can go the whole preseason with replacement officials if they like, and the fact that you (or the players, for that matter) don't like it is irrelevant to them. All this has done is make an already low-quality product (preseason football) even worse. But the NFL knows its preseason product is of low quality. The commissioner has admitted as much on many occasions. It also knows that you're going to keep paying for and watching it, no matter how bad it is.
The NFL's owners will care about the fans on the day they believe the fans are going to stop willingly handing them huge stacks of their hard-earned money. And not before. They will care about letting their real officials back in on the day when they believe not doing so would cost them money. And not before. This is the way the world works, and the NFL is no exception. They are a big business just like any other, constantly secure in the arrogant belief they they can, will and should always get everything they want. So, sorry, Victor Cruz. You're probably going to have to deal with this situation for a few more weeks.