Sports Nut

Chris Kluwe, replacement refs: These guys are as bad as you think.

An NFL player’s view of the replacement refs: They’re as bad as you think.

Chris Kluwe
Chris Kluwe punts against the Detroit Lions in 2011.

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images.

The replacement refs are bad. There’s no way around it. None! Whether it’s the pressure of live television on the sport’s largest stage, or just an inability to do the job, these guys are making football increasingly painful to watch as a player, and I’m certain it’s just as frustrating for the fans. It’s like watching a Lamborghini roll around on eight-inch spare tires. Not good.

The comedy of errors this preseason has ranged from calling a touchback on a punt that was downed at the 4 to a guy standing with his back to the camera when making a call. And then there’s my personal favorite, the conferences.

Oh, the conferences.

It seems as if, after every call, all 35 refs come sprinting in to discuss the merits of Kafka’s Metamorphosis as it relates to the economy of Bangladesh, and just when you think they’ve finally figured it out, they reconvene for Round 2. Then Round 3. I saw a baby born in the stadium reach full walking status during one ref conference, and at the end of it, when they finally announced something, no one had any idea whether it was even the right decision or not. We didn’t care at that point; we just wanted to move on to the next play so we could finish the game before the Mayan apocalypse. I am slightly curious how the TV networks are going to handle eight-hour games. I bet we get cut for Heidi.

The conferences aren’t the worst of it, because after they’ve finished rewriting War and Peace, you get to find out what the ruling is. And boy, there have been some doozies. I get that it’s not easy to see everything that’s going on, but we’ve gone past the line of “Oh, hey, that’s kind of a bad call” and moved on to “I don’t … what … even … that’s not [epic facepalm].”

One of the perks of my job is that I get a lot of opportunities to watch the refs in action, since punting doesn’t exactly take up a lot of time during the game. The following are things I have personally witnessed this preseason. I swear that all of this stuff happened.

1. A quarterback was punched in the head during the course of a sack—it happens, all good so far. The refs respond by calling a dead-ball unnecessary roughness penalty despite it being a live-ball play—uh oh, we’re on shaky ground now. Then they walk off the penalty—and, for unknown reasons, they decide it should be eight yards. I realize that the penalty system is quite complex, with its multiples of five and all, but an eight-yard penalty? Really?

2. We walked out for a punt, and my long snapper didn’t feel like going over to the other hash. What did he do? He told the ref, “No, you have the ball in the wrong place. Move it over here.” And what did the ref do? HE MOVED THE BALL. No! Bad ref! Have some confidence in your abilities—you tell us what to do, not the other way around. (I absolutely murdered the subsequent punt by the way, so that was cool.) I haven’t personally seen it, but I’ve heard of coaches berating the replacement refs in other games and getting penalty flags picked up. I’m sure that won’t be a problem in a real game, though. I can’t picture Belichick or Harbaugh losing his shit at a ref if he thought it would give his team a tactical advantage. Totally out of character.

3. They missed a call so badly that the replay official called down from the booth and made them review the play so they could assess a penalty. That’s not really allowed in the rulebook, but I guess we’re just winging it at this point. I can’t wait for the NFL to put drones over every stadium so they can call in penalties in real time and turn the replacements into glorified meat puppets. I can totally picture the commissioner sitting in front of a video screen, grainy crosshairs zeroed in on James Harrison, rubbing his hands with glee as he waits to hit the big red “PENALTY FINE” button. (If it also fired a Hellfire missile, I think that would really liven the game up.) Naturally, though, they’ll need a conference first.

Unfortunately, it looks as if we’re stuck with the replacement refs for the beginning of the season since the NFL and the NFLRA can’t play nice with each other. It will be interesting (in the Chinese-proverb sense of the word) to see what happens when the games start for real. I mean, it’s not like this is a multi-billion dollar business that derives its entire revenue from fan satisfaction with the product. Plus, I’d say we got off lucky that the first real game will be between a couple small-market teams like the Giants and Cowboys. Nobody will be watching, I’m sure. Go get ‘em replacements!