Riled over replacement refs

On Sunday night, Ravens fans spoke for millions of fellow football fans across the nation when they repeatedly thundered an 8-letter response to what might easily have been the worst officiated professional football game ever held at M&T; Bank Stadium.

For much of the end of the 4th quarter, and even as the Ravens came back to defeat the New England Patriots with a last-second field goal that, appropriately enough, was disputed by the losing team, the crowd seemed to speak with one (very loud) voice. The one-word, two-syllable chant, which started with "b" and ended with "hit" and might otherwise describe a common fertilizer, was so loud that even NBC Sunday Night Football announcers Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth had to acknowledge its vehemence — and their inability to edit the profanity from their broadcast.

The crowd's anger was directed at the replacement referees who made so many bad calls — calling phantom penalties and then failing to spot legitimate violations and regularly displaying a poor knowledge of the rules — that frustrated fans had little recourse. Is there any way to get the National Football League's attention and settle this foolish labor dispute with its referees?

For those who haven't followed the NFL season closely, the replacement officials were hired because the NFL locked out its union-represented referees in a contract dispute. These replacements are, in the parlance of organized labor, scabs. Many are small-time college refs who clearly lack a full understanding of the admittedly byzantine rules of pro football. The result has been chaos, and the situation has only gotten worse as coaches and players have tried to take advantage of the peculiar situation and stretched the boundaries of behavior on the field.

In such a highly-competitive and physical sport, such boundary-stretching can quickly become dangerous and raise the risk of player injury. But it's also unsurprising that such behavior occurs. Like substitute teachers, the referees have lost control of their charges and are unlikely to restore order until the no-nonsense regulars are back from their unwanted holiday.

But here's the problem. The NFL seems highly uninterested in settling the dispute and returning order to M&T; or anywhere else. Why? Probably because the standoff hasn't cost them in fan attendance or TV ratings so far and probably won't no matter how long this drags out. Not capitulating to the union probably saves the owners money, at least in the short term (as the main sticking point is reputed to be a proposed $3 million reduction to the referees' generous pension program). Nobody decides to watch a pro football game because their favorite referee will be in attendance. If anything, the chaos on the field has only added to the spectacle of a sport that relies on spectacle — like the Romans throwing a few more lions into the coliseum, it's not pretty, but it's certainly not boring either.

Still, the frustration is taking its toll. We would quote NFL coaches and team officials on the subject, but the league has made it clear that it expects them to hold their tongues or be fined or worse. Sports commentators and fans may rage about the circumstances, but NFL owners seem not to care even as bad calls and misinterpretations of the rules change the outcomes of games. And make no mistake, they are making a difference. In the Tennessee-Detroit game on Sunday, officials marked the ball at the wrong spot after a personal foul call that put the Titans in place to kick a game-winning field goal.

Without the realistic fear of a fan boycott, the league is indifferent to even the worst embarrassments on national television. Whatever damage is being done to the product is long-term and therefore too ephemeral to motivate the owners. So what's a fan to do? In Baltimore, we yell out our frustrations at the top of our lungs, and sometimes the language, like the Ravens themselves, is purple. That may strike some as childish and rude, but people paying hundreds of dollars for tickets, parking, concessions and personal seat licenses to watch millionaires play a game deserve a little slack. Let the fans in other NFL stadiums across the land take up the call.

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