Officials given unenviable task


To be honest, I find it hard to envy the job of any professional sports official.

Baseball umpires are ridiculed for not always being able to see the centimeter-sized

differences between whether or not the ball (which is white) passed over home

plate (which is also white). Soccer referees in the World Cup have to decide whether

or not the player writhing on the ground and clutching his leg was actually fouled, or

is just especially good at faking injuries. Either way, the ref will have an entire

country cursing him by the end of the match.

Football referees, meanwhile, face the impossible challenge of their own

judgment. While they have a leg up on other sports’ officials in that they can use

video replay for just about everything else, when it comes to calling penalties they’re

on their own. In a sport that glorifies violent contact, they’re handed the task of

determining what kind of contact is “legal.” Did the 300-pound man attempting to

block the other 300-pound man do it cleanly, or did he grab the other’s shirt? Did the

defender smash into the receiver legally, just after the ball arrived, or did he get

there a little too early and interfere with his opponent’s chance to make a play?

Football refs are constantly toeing the finest of lines, and of course, it’s never

possible to make everyone happy.

Now, as if they needed it, the calls made by the guys in the black and white

striped shirts carry even more weight. Week 6 of this young NFL season was filled

with the kind of collisions that make you squirm in your seat, but you can’t possibly

stop watching the replays. Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, who is notorious

for his violent play, made two contributions to the carnage. In the space of just a few

minutes, Harrison knocked two Cleveland receivers out of the game and left them

both with concussions.

In response to this sudden spike in crippling hits, several of which featured

defenders who looked as though they were going out of their way to meet helmet-to-

helmet with their opponent, the league upgraded its penalties. After issuing the

customary fines – usually 50 to 75,000 dollars – officials stated that from now on,

such illegal hits on defenseless players could also result in suspensions. It seems that

the realization that $50,000 isn’t all that much for an athlete making millions per

year to pay has finally dawned, so the penalties have been made steeper.

In response to this rule change, there was something of an uproar amongst

the players. Harrison appealed his fine, and once it was upheld he spent a day or two

announcing that he would retire, stating that he could not possibly be an effective

player with such rules in place. More controversy was stirred up when the NFL put

photos of Harrison’s hit on Cleveland’s Mohamed Massaquoi up for sale, glorifying

and profiting from the very hit it had deemed illegal.

Heading into Week 7, it seemed as though the issue had created a major rift

between players and the league. The NFL was penalizing players for the violent hits

football fans love, all while glorifying and profiting off it. Outspoken players felt that

the rules would ruin the game they’ve been playing for years, putting yet another

restriction on a sport that is popular because it is so physical.

But Sunday came and went, and the new penalties didn’t seem to have any

real negative effect. Harrison decided against retirement. The league removed the

photos of illegal hits from the market. Players seemed to make an effort to direct

tackles lower on opponents’ bodies, avoiding the head-to-head collisions that so

often result in concussions. NFL executive vice president Ray Anderson

acknowledged players, specifically Harrison, and applauded their efforts. It may

have only been one week, but not a single penalty flag was thrown for the type of

vicious hits that seemed to be occurring left and right just seven days before.

Heavy restrictions on the hits that define the sport of football are hard to

swallow, both for players and for fans. But after a week of seeing those restrictions

at work, it seems that they were necessary. Some analysts described the new rules

as a method of “protecting players from themselves,” and that’s an interesting way

to look at it. When Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson smashed into Philadelphia

receiver Desean Jackson two Sundays ago, both players received concussions and

missed their games the following week. The debilitating long-term effects of

concussions have been researched extensively of late, and football players showcase

some of the most gruesome examples. The NFL needed to make a change to protect

the players, and it seems as though they finally found a way to do that.

In the long run, making shots to the heads of defenseless players an offense

that warrants suspension should have a very positive outcome for everyone. That is,

everyone besides the refs. On top of all the other nuances of the fast-moving,

physical game they’re responsible for, they now must determine when exactly a 6’5″,

280-pound man whose body is 80% muscle becomes “defenseless.”