Hands have been wrung to the nub over the replacement refs in the NFL. Players, fans and media types are steaming with outrage. The refs are clearly not up to the task of officiating a fast-moving, violent sport. They’re robbing the sport of its integrity. Nobody seems to know what to do about it.
Fortunately, another professional sport deals with this sort of thing all the time.
Monday night, World Wrestling Entertainment champion CM Punk started “WWE Raw” by complaining about referees. The week before, Punk had been pinned by WWE hero John Cena in a tag-team match even though Punk’s foot was on the rope – which, as all wrestling fans know, negates the pin. The referee – a new ref working his first main event – missed the call.
Punk called the ref into the ring, chewed him out, demanded his resignation, and sent him away with a gift – a sleep mask (because the ref was asleep at the switch, you see). The mask had the WWE logo over one eye… and the NFL shield over the other.
This was before the Seattle-Green Bay game had even kicked off.
In the NFL world, replacement refs are a nightmare. In pro wrestling, referee trouble is a time-tested angle. I’m sort of stunned Vince McMahon didn’t think of a ref lockout first.
The NFL owners and Roger Goodell still don’t seem in any hurry to end the lockout – it’s possible that, in a show of unity, they’re refusing to watch their own games. In the meantime, if we’re stuck with the replacements, here are some ref angles that wrestling uses all the time to build drama. Simple incompetence is just the beginning.
The Distraction. Why do bad-guy wrestlers (the “heels”) have managers? So the manager can jump up on the ring apron at a key moment and get the ref’s attention. That gives the bad guy a chance to bash the good guy with a chair or kick him in a tender place. NFL teams have a dozen assistant coaches. Designate one to scream, or maybe drop his pants, right before his linebacker holds the tight end coming over the middle. Under current NFL rules, “dropping your pants” is not a reviewable call.
The Restart. A heel often wins the match, only to have the fans start screaming about the lead pipe hidden under the waistband of his trunks. Wrestling refs, unlike NFL owners, often listen to the fans – so it’s common for a ref to throw out the result and start the match over. The problem with Seattle-Green Bay is, the Seahawks were the good guys (at least inside the stadium). It would’ve taken a brave ref to say, “We’re pretty sure Seattle cheated, so let’s run one more play!”
The Ref Bump. In a stunning coincidence as yet unexplained by science, nearly every big pay-per-view match has a moment when the ref is accidentally knocked out and can’t count the pinfall when one wrestler has the other beat. In the NFL, the umpire (the official who stands behind the defensive line in key parts of the game) is ripe for getting plowed over. In fact, a heel quarterback – we’re looking at you, Smokin’ Jay Cutler – would absolutely drill the umpire “Longest Yard”-style. (It’s sorta NSFW, but if you’re curious, search YouTube for “Longest Yard McNuggets.”)
The Guest Referee. Many big matches feature a special referee – usually a wrestler who has heat with one or both of the combatants, even though he swears to call it down the middle. This would be the greatest thing in the NFL since the two-point conversion. Can you imagine the ratings if Mike Ditka was the special referee in a Bears-Packers game? Or Joe Namath in Jets-Pats? I’d even watch Browns-Bengals if Jim Brown was out there in a striped shirt, throwing flags and taking names.
The Evil Ref. Refs are only human; they have needs, they have desires just like you and me. Sometimes they fall prey to somebody with a little money to spread around. “Call it like you see it,” the heel might say. “Just count a little faster when the other guy’s down.” And before you know it, the ref’s cheating the good guys and partying with the heels at the Holiday Inn bar.
In the ‘80s, the WWE ran the best Evil Ref angle ever. In real life, refs Earl and Dave Hebner are identical twins. In the angle, Dave was supposed to ref a world title match between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant… but Andre’s manager, Ted “Million Dollar Man” DiBiase, paid an unknown (played by Earl) to get plastic surgery so he looked like Dave.
DiBiase locked Dave in a closet, the Unknown Ref cheated to help Andre win, Andre gave the title to DiBiase, Dave escaped, Dave and Earl started fighting in the ring, and this is way more than you wanted to know, right?
Here’s the point. The NFL isn’t the WWE yet, but it’s a lot closer than it was three weeks ago.
And if you tune in a game Sunday and see a Winklevoss brother handling the coin toss, you’ll know what’s coming.
P.S.: Might as well take the poll.