NFL Replacement Refs Are Cautionary Tales

Lee Igel September 19, 2012 0

The National Football League lockout of its referees has been going on for more than nine months. Four weeks of preseason and two weeks of the regular season have been officiated by replacement referees drawn from the ranks of Division III colleges and even high schools. No one thinks the replacements are up to the task. They have been bungling their way through games in ways that not only are embarrassing to a league that says it values the integrity of the game above all else, but greatly irritating to fans who have to sit through the blown calls, misinterpretations of the rules, endless conferences and disappearance of officials under the replay hood, and, often, very strange ball placement.

Yet, to date, only one replacement referee has been subject to any penalty or reproach by the league. Why? Because he was caught flouting NFL team gear on the Internet.

Brian Stropolo is one of the replacement officials the NFL hired to fill-in has worked games throughout the preseason and the season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. In Week 2, he was assigned to the New Orleans Saints-Carolina Panthers game. But, a few hours before kickoff, the league pulled him and announced that he will not be allowed to return to officiating until it completes an investigation.

Why was Stropolo replaced? Was he one of the most inept of the gang who can’t shoot straight replacements? Had his work put players at risk? No. He is guilty of having posted photos of himself on his Facebook page—wearing New Orleans Saints gear. Brian Stropolo, the NFL thinks, might be guilty of being a fan. And that they think merits an investigation.

Stropolo isn’t the first person to fall into the category of cautionary tales about people posting content to social networks that bites them in the butt. It’s almost become a habit for many people to provide the world with up-to-the-minute news and pictures about their lives. Much of it is posted without consideration of either long-term or unintended consequences. Stropolo, a native of New Orleans and fan of the Saints, is a Division III referee who suddenly got the call-up to the NFL but forgot to delete the evidence of his fandom from Facebook.

Common sense suggests that Stropolo should have edited his Facebook page as soon as he received even a hint about officiating in the NFL. If he removed references to his devotion to the Saints, he would have passed as an impartial judge even if he bled black and gold. Instead, he has been removed from officiating any NFL games because his past public allegiance is considered to be enough to call his objectivity into question. New Orleans, in the middle of a huge controversy about a play-to-injure scheme that has the NFL Commissioner beside himself, does not need the added trouble a groupie referee brings.

Stropolo was certainly a Saints fan. Does that mean that he couldn’t act impartially once he dons officials’ stripes and takes his position on the field?

The basic assumption behind the NFL sending Stropolo to an early shower is that his fandom is so intense that he cannot make decisions without bias towards the Saints. This is possible. But it is unlikely he is the only replacement referee out there who had a favorite team before getting the call to stand in for the regular referees. It is also unlikely that he is the only one simply bedazzled by the chance to work with the best players and coaches in the game. The question is, how affected would Stropolo be, consciously or not, by his fandom? It’s a question that might be asked of all officials who grew up rooting for a pro team. It’s also a question that makes Stropolo as human as the rest of us who follow the NFL.

Current NFL policy does not permit officials to publicly announce which games they are assigned to, mostly for reasonable fears of illicit gamblers getting to them. That makes sense. But does it really make sense to do anything to Stropolo other than to ask him to get the incriminating evidence of his love of the Saints off his website, and keep his Saints logos and cup-holders in the privacy of his own home?

Bias among the replacement referees is small ethical potatoes. The glaring problem of incompetency that damages the game—and may even bring undue harm on those who play—is the missing gorilla in the NFL executive suite. That is a subject truly worthy of investigation.

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