In Medias Refs

Money talks.

In fact it won't shut up, and in the beginning this was about short money and the NFL owners trying to pull a few nickels out of the sofa cushions. Helpless to stop themselves overspending on running backs and Aqualanga truffles, this year the owners figured they'd wring a few cents from the help by locking out the officials.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would then explain to every one of us in tones of stern assurance that in doing so the owners were working on behalf of better officiating and player safety. They were in no way simply cutting their overhead, or scraping together some loose change to reupholster the Gulfstream.

Thus between the lines of a press release from the vice principal's office would Capital bully Labor while an anxious America waited for the game-day pizza to arrive.

And for a few weeks we all played along. Until Monday night, when the NFL became a "scandal," without stopping long at "laughingstock."

Early Wednesday afternoon the news from Park Avenue ran hot and fast and wrong on Twitter and Facebook and talk radio that a settlement was at hand, and no one was quite sure if the lockout was over or not. It felt right to say it was, it felt imminent, like The League and The Shield and the game couldn't bear even one more week of punchlines and Three Stooges highlight reels. Not after that Green Bay-Seattle game.

Or was it just a tactical feint, a leak to the media meant to pressure the NFL Referees Association into making a deal? By Wednesday night no one was sure.

Settlement and rumors of settlement everywhere made sense, because whatever grave, slow-motion mythology Steve Sabol had been able to craft for NFL football over the past 40 years was being burned off hour by hour in the very week of his memorials. This wasn't "Beowulf" anymore, it was something out of Gilbert and Sullivan, a case of mistaken identity played as farce, as comic opera. Who abducted the real officials? Were they tied to a chair somewhere? Is that a fake mustache? These were clearly imposters, vaudevillians who'd never seen the game up close and didn't care how broad the slapstick ran as long as they got their laughs.

This being America, in the end it came down to money. Not the nickels and dimes the owners might have saved by putting the NFLRA pension into a 401(k), but the billions rung up week in and week out by bookies from Las Vegas to Sri Lanka. A sea of money, an ocean of money was at stake and the pressure to reassure all that money, to calm all that money down, must have been immense. Tectonic. Planetary.

We'll get the real officials back thanks to the gravitational pull of the money bet on U.S. football. Because the most lucrative random numbers generator on Earth, the NFL, needs every game to be played on the square. Even the appearance of a fix could send the planet wobbling into the sun. And given sufficient incompetence, the appearance of a fix was inevitable.

That's what happened Monday night in Seattle. This wasn't about integrity or love of the game or player safety or the fans or even the quality of the product on the field. This was about a game so poorly officiated by scabs that sportsbooks were refunding money -- because an NFL game looked crooked.

This deal got done because without real officials, real money can't trust the NFL. Not after Monday night.

So a grateful nation heaves a heavy sigh and orders another large pepperoni with extra cheese. The wrong story will be reported, the terms of a new contract will be itemized in earnest and in good faith and in a great hurry and the word "safety" will be all around us, and the lies and the press releases will fall like snow and the $200 haircuts will stand in the blizzard and tell us what it all means.

It means money talks.