Monday, February 2, 2009

For Official Abuse Only

Why do I hate NFL officials? Is it because of their manifest bewilderment and uncertainty when faced with anything but the most crudely simple situations? Is it their prissy and limp-wristed concept of what constitutes “unsportsmanlike conduct”, “excessive celebration”, and “taunting”? Is it their total ignorance of the laws of physics (e.g., calling plain old inertia “roughing the passer” or “a late hit”)? Is it that their threshold for calling a penalty varies wildly within a single game? Is it what appears to be blatant bias (always against one's own team of course!)? Is it that, amazingly often, they truly do not appear to know the rules they are being paid to enforce? (Or, at least they don't know them as well as the announcers, or any fan in the stands over the age of seven.) Or perhaps it's the fact that they will never admit that they're wrong until it's too late to do anything about it? And, of course, they will never, never apologize for anything, ever.

Any or all of the above are sufficient justification for considering NFL officials brain-dead retards, if not exactly evil. But my feeling is that it goes deeper. The thing that I hate the most is that they take all the joy out of great plays. Let's say there's, oh, a critical interception, or sack, or touchdown. And it's called, or appears to be called, what it is, or appears to be. The official's arms go up: touchdown! The temptation – for fans and players alike -- is to celebrate. But then there is an eerie silence, and we get that sinking feeling. Something is amiss. Images arise of an intense conference among the officials, like some group of Talmudic scholars, with much scratching of heads and stroking of beads. “Well, but I saw (or think I saw)”... “It looked like”... “On the other hand”... and all the time we wait, breathless, for the ax to fall. I'm not talking about “a flag on the play” -- that's irritating enough, but some of those calls actually have objective validity. I'm talking about the fact that nothing can be accepted at face value; it all has to be subjected to “judgment”. It's like Olympic events, which increasingly are not decided according to objective criteria (like time and distance, for example) but according to “points” awarded by people with, in many cases, blatant biases. In any case, what should have been an occasion for jubilation turns into an occasion for suspense, anxiety, and anticipated anger and despair. Who the hell are these pygmies, anyway? Could any of them ever do what our favorite players do on a regular basis? It's been said that those who cannot do, teach. To which I add, those who can do neither one, officiate.

There's sound psychology behind all of this, by the way. One researcher (whose name I can't recall) pointed out, years ago, the difference between what he called “satisfiers” and “dissatisfiers”. Think of things arranged along a spectrum from negative to neutral to positive. “Satisfiers” are positive things – good and rewarding things. We enjoy them when we get, or have, them, but when we don't we're not especially put out; i.e. our situation is “neutral” and thus bearable, if somewhat boring. So I may consider a dinner of kobe steak to be a fine thing, but I don't find the lack of said dinner to be all that aversive; in fact, I might not think about it at all. “Dissatisfiers”, on the other hand, are negative things – things that we're likely to exert great effort to get rid of, or bring to an end. But when a dissatisfier is not present, we don't spend a lot of time dwelling on the fact; again, we're in a neutral state. I don't go around all day rejoicing, for example, that I don't have a kidney stone. Now, if I have one then get rid of it, I will certainly rejoice, at least for a day or two, but then life returns to normal.

So, how do we apply this model to the horrors perpetrated by NFL officials on a weekly basis throughout the season? What is it that they do to crush our spirit? Well, take that prize-winning touchdown – an occasion for celebration if ever there was one. It's definitely a “satisfier”, by which I mean the pleasure of having seen it happen is much greater than the displeasure of not having it seen it happen, which is closer to neutral. But what happens during the seemingly-endless span of time it takes the officials to “discuss” the play, and spend many minutes under a shroud on the sidelines watching tapes -- until they finallly emerge from the huddle, and we hear the three most dreaded words in the English language: "Upon further review..." Our psychological measuring stick morphs to the point where, if the touchdown is called back, it will be a “dissatisfier”, but if it is allowed to stand it will be close to neutral. I.e., we will be relieved that these clowns finally came to a decision, but the stress of waiting has robbed the occasion of most of its simple, unalloyed joy. Now we consider ourselves lucky to just break even.

In other words, the essence of celebration is being able to do so in a wholehearted manner, without being plagued by doubts. Otherwise, one may still celebrate, but will be doing to in a somewhat delusional fashion, and setting oneself up for even greater disappointment. Under the perpetual shadow of NFL officiating, it starts to look foolish to celebrate before the end of the game, and wise to stay cool, cynical, and detached. But that is not the essence of fandom, needless to say. A "fan" should be allowed to see something, perceive it correctly, and celebrate accordingly, without being repeatedly crushed by "wise men" in striped shirts. But so it goes, throughout the typical NFL game – the agony and the ecstasy – the big play, followed by doubt, and anxiety, and the feeling that, at any moment, the officials will come up with another of their innumerable lame-assed reasons why the play was no good, or why even though it was good, there is some other reason why it can't be allowed to stand.

And that's another thing! How did the penalty system ever become the abomination it has become? All it does is punish players for the offenses of other players, like an incompetent grade-school teacher punishing the whole class for the antics of the one hyperactive kid. I mean, if a guy screws up and draws a flag, make him sit out one play, or one drive, or a quarter, or the game, or a season, or a lifetime! But don't punish everyone else; they are doing their best to play an honest game. Of course, I know the counterargument already – it's the _team_ that is being punished for the offenses of the _team_. Well fine, welcome to the Soviet Union. I understand the team concept up to a point, but it strikes me that the penalty system takes it to a collectivist extreme.

I know this situation is unlikely to change very soon, and hey, if I don't like it I can just stop watching, right? Plus, my team just won the Super Bowl – after a season in which they suffered plenty of blatantly incompetent calls by officials. But they managed to overcome that. And the officiating in the Super Bowl was much better than average, despite what Jason Whitlock says ( So what am I complaining about? Only that in a profession where the quality of players and coaches is so all-important, we are somehow expected to put up with so much mediocrity on the part of officials. This ain't amateur night; it's the big leagues. So why are the people who so often determine the fate of the game allowed to dither around like old women? If someone can give me a good answer to that question, I might be more... “satisfied”.

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