When it comes to influential figures in American sports, James Naismith will get a nod thanks to his peach basket enterprising. Whoever can lay claim to inventing football's forward pass could also be recognized for revolutionizing that game.
But, from the sounds coming from sports throughout the years, the "most influential" title seems more apt to be given to the games' referees.
Football, basketball, baseball, hockey. Call them referees, officials, umpires. Listen after games, check message boards, and hear the gripes from callers on radio talk shows. Without a doubt, the referees are the ones deciding the outcomes of all the important games nowadays — and have been for years.
Think about it: When is the last time a game ended and wasn't followed by some kind of qualm against a referee?
Would the Red Sox be as far under .500 if not for some bad strike zone calls? Would the Celtics have gone to the NBA Finals if the refs hadn't loved the Heat? Would the Patriots have left Gillette Stadium on Sunday with a win if not for some suspicious late-game penalty calls?
Well, if the discussion is turning to the NFL, everything changes. That's because, after years of fans thinking that their team always gets slighted and that officials are on the take for everyone but their beloved players, fans finally have a legitimate reason to be pointing fingers at the subculture that is the refereeing of professional sports.
And it could actually destroy the game this time.
What began as an another unfortunate labor dispute has blossomed into a serious black eye for the NFL as it prepares for a few more weeks of replacement referees.
The original charge laid against using replacements — that they would put players in danger — was laudable but mostly misguided. Yes, players are going to get hurt. But the bigger issue here with the jokers who are wearing stripes for the NFL is that the game is fast becoming a mockery.
Critics were ready to take down the replacement refs in Week 1, as the group entered its first real action in the regular season. The refs made a few bad calls, with some mismanagement of the clock at the end of the Seattle-Arizona game the biggest mistake. But nothing too game-changing happened, and the players and coaches decided those contests' results.
Week 2, however, was an absolute mess. Where do you start? How about one official who thought he would try to sneak in as a line judge for the Saints-Panthers game when he was such a kitschy Saints fan that he did his best Sean Payton impersonation in front of a cruise ship? Would you like to revisit the ref who faced the wrong side of the field when going to explain a call? Or maybe the relative inaction after Steven Jackson and his Rams teammates did something resembling a touchdown in the end zone, but no officials decided to step up and make a call?
That's without the ridiculous amount of close or botched calls, the unsettling feeling that the refs were just waiting for plays to end so they could run to the replay hood, or the general idiocy that started to arise from players when they realized no one with confidence was running the show.
That's the biggest problem with the replacement refs. Their game-calling may be subpar to that of the regular referees, but they at least need to be able to hold down the fort until the professionals return. Instead, Week 2 rolled back the curtain for the landscape of professional sports to change dramatically, as players found the room — and reason — to start acting out against the refs and putting their stamp on games that should be decided by rules and order.
If the replacement refs continue to fumble their way through games, players, coaches and fans will become increasingly emboldened to question their judgment and authority. What should be an off-limits part of sports — that a call is a call, and teams find a way to play around or through it — is now being justifiably challenged by those who know they are getting duped by ineptitude. Players, coaches and fans have every right to protest what happened Sunday and how many games were in disarray because the authorities on the field were skittish, unprepared or just plain bad.
Where the real problem lies is that, with every Sunday that the replacements are allowed to run around unaccountable, the NFL — and the greater sports world — advances toward an area that sports absolutely cannot go. With such a stack of complaints against officiating already, professional leagues cannot enter a place where those accusations are right. Once the calls are bad and unacceptable, any future calls will be questioned the same way, whether they're right or wrong, and even if the professionals have returned to the game.
By allowing amateurs to set the tone for the league, professional sports move from a world of strict accountability where some bad calls are made to an acceptance of officials being fallible, where calls get no respect but instead are allowed to be scrutinized from a peanut gallery that cannot aptly judge the sport.
(Not to mention the obvious point, which is that the outcome of games is being affected.)
The replacement refs are fiddling with a Pandora's Box with every poor call they make and slow reaction they have. The NFL needs authority on the field — to say a call is a call, whether onlookers think it's right or not, and to say players need to stay in line. The mouthing off, football-throwing and other shenanigans that got into the games this past weekend are only the beginning if players think they can push refs around.
Fans have gone years saying that referees' influence has unduly skewed the game. Now, after a couple of weeks when they've actually been right, the NFL needs to move quick. This awkward situation should become more of a "remember when?" and less of a new benchmark for the lunacy that professional sports officiating could be.