America needs good refs -- on the gridiron and in politics

Seldom do America's two great passions -- politics and sports -- come into such sharp focus together as they have in the uproar over the role of the referees in each field, in the midst of the 2012 presidential campaign and the National Football Leagueseason.

As supporters of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney rail about the bias of the news media in reporting and commenting on the their race for the Oval Office, louder cries were heard against the incompetent game-calling by NFL replacement zebras in the midst of a strike by top regulars.

Wealthy and demonstrably greedy team owners finally caved in the wake of an arguably botched call on the field Monday night that handed the Seattle Seahawks a last-second victory over the Green Bay Packers.

Finally recognizing the damage being done to the integrity of their cash cow by the efforts to sweeten their own pot, the owners yielded to the demands that the regular refs' pension plan be retained, putting them back in their stripes and onto the field for last night's game in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, in the political realm, complaints continue that the news media are blatantly biased in favor of or against a given presidential nominee, or are so unhinged by structural change as to have become as unreliable as the replacement refs in the NFL.

Newspapers and newsmagazines, shaken from their former dominance as the oracles of the political commentariat, have seen their near-monopoly shredded by the Internet and a cable television world increasingly given to the ideological leanings or flat-out declarations of featured partisans.

At the same time, more print reporters -- still ostensibly striving for fact-based narrative and analysis -- are, by choice or management policy, appearing before television cameras in inevitable competition with the more freewheeling and opinionated creatures of the airwaves.

Too often, the result is the same in the refereeing of both politics and sport. There is more fodder for dispute than for public enlightenment, and the concomitant verbal warfare sours the dialogue and demeans both endeavors in the eyes of the intensely involved spectators.

The difference in the analogy, of course, is that one is a real-life competition over the direction of the country and the other is only a game. But in each, the overwhelming influence of money has contorted what should be, in the self-adopted and oft-disregarded Fox News slogan, "fair and balanced," an even playing field.

The Supreme Court, in opening the floodgates to unlimited campaign money by corporations (and unions) as "persons," has turned this year's presidential campaign into an ugly television slugfest, with facts the casualty. And in sports, the NFL owners decided to soil their own nest by leaving the game itself in the hands of less-competent whistleblowers.

At least for the time being in the world of pro football, public reaction has apparently persuaded the owners to stop biting the viewers' hands that feed them so well. It remains to be seen whether the game itself can quickly be brought back to its former credibility. At stake also is the safety of the players, some of whom notably often took advantage of the sloppy penalty calling to administer late or intentional blows to their opponents.

In the mini-furor over more concussions, one of the more exciting plays -- the kickoff return that often led to head-hunting -- was neutralized by moving forward the point of kickoff, making touchbacks more likely and discouraging runbacks by speedy receivers. The owners in this way supposedly demonstrated their concern over the players' health.

But the game of politics, of which the American people are alleged by the politicians to be the "owners," has increasingly been put in the hands of big-money special interests, spending to rig the system to their own advantage. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court as now constituted doesn't see this particular game that way.

The Obama campaign, itself focused laser-like on the re-election of the president in light of the lame economic system threatening that outcome, ought to be spending time as well on the longer-shot challenge to regain control of Congress. Only by doing so is any campaign finance reform possible, as well as achieving a Supreme Court with a changed view of the political game.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is

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