The fight between the NFL and its officials didn't end in some swank New York City office late Wednesday night, when both parties reached a long-awaited agreement. It was over on Monday night in Seattle. It was done the moment Green Bay Packers cornerback M.D. Jennings intercepted a Hail Mary pass, only to learn that he was on the wrong end of the Seattle Seahawks' game-winning touchdown reception by wide receiver Golden Tate.
That play will forever define a lockout that never should have happened in the first place.
Anybody who has watched an NFL game this season now knows how important qualified officials are to the league. What's harder to figure out is why the owners and commissioner Roger Goodell were willing to risk their credibility to save a few bucks. This is a league that has been touting integrity for years in ways that sounded so convincing to the general public. But all that tough talk began to sound like cheap banter in just three weeks, which is how long it took for the owners to realize the severity of their mistake.
Let's not forget that as we celebrate the return of real officials this week. We can rest easier knowing that a professional crew will be handling Thursday's game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. We can have more faith, as we head into Sunday and Monday, that the potential for continual chaos on the field is now behind us. The thing we shouldn't do so quickly is completely forgive the NFL for this disaster. We should let it be a reminder of how hypocritical this league can be when it comes to espousing its values.
As much as people want to apply blame to both sides in a labor squabble, it's impossible for me not to fault the owners on this one. That's not just because they had more than enough money to resolve some of the major issues the officials brought to the table. It's because the owners so clearly bet on the fans siding with them when the regular season began. They thought we didn't care about the refs before this point and we weren't going to care about them once the real games began.
That arrogance meant as much to the lockout as any demands the officials made in their negotiations. The owners knew fans would still come to the games in droves. They knew the action would still draw millions upon millions of viewers each weekend. As long as the bottom line wasn't affected, the league could live with a tainted product. The owners figured we would do what we've always done, which is stick with the league no matter what.
The silver lining of Monday night is that the controversy gave the league its ultimate nightmare, a sight it pathetically tried to support with a weakly written statement about how those officials made the right decision in the final seconds of Green Bay's loss. The mistake alone was horrendous enough. The press release only made the league look even more tone-deaf. Goodell's office had been so accustomed to controlling the message about this league that it seemingly couldn't imagine that a simple statement wouldn't extinguish this calamity. For the first time in a long time, the league had to consider the very real consequences of public outrage.
There were stories about broadcasting executives questioning Goodell about the league's product. Morning news shows replayed the ending of the Packers-Seahawks game as if it was the most significant event of the day. It's difficult to think that fan outcry alone could make the owners think twice about their stance. The boisterous complaints echoed by business partners and non-sports media outlets surely increased pressure on the league. Even President Obama was miffed by what he saw in Seattle on Monday night.
The hope here is that the league learned a valuable lesson: Greed gets you only so far. They bet on our ambivalence and believed that the popularity of the sport would help their cause. They certainly never saw their league turning ugly enough to draw a bright spotlight on a matter few people seriously were discussing three weeks ago.
The irony of all this is that we now have more respect and faith in NFL officials than ever before. They return as welcome saviors with the ability to bring much-needed control to the action on the field. We'll savor the sight of games that don't last four hours or feature bizarre notions of what constitutes pass interference. We'll enjoy plays that end without cheap shots, scuffles and players flopping in order to draw personal fouls.
We might even be willing to cut the regular refs some slack for a missed call here or there. They've certainly earned that privilege, given the alternative. Think about it -- the same men we once took for granted now have far more of our faith than we ever expected to give them. We know what they mean to the game, which is more than the NFL could say a few hours ago.
As for the league, we also understand better where its leaders stand. They talked about the need to clean up the game when players were getting arrested, and suddenly a player conduct policy emerged. They talked about the need to tame the game when defenders were blasting offensive players, and immediately a safety policy appeared. But there was no sense of urgency when this lockout created a culture of incompetence and complete chaos. All we saw were owners hoping we would tolerate the mess until the real officials eventually caved.
So much for that idea. The truth is now out, and the league has some serious work to do in the credibility department. Fans will feel better this week, and players and coaches surely will have fewer things to worry about on game day. The league also must be praying that the focus returns quickly to the field, because that will mask the most important lesson to be gained from this lockout: that it should've never gotten so ridiculous in the first place.