- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Finally, Republicans and Democrats have found grounds for bipartisan agreement: It’s time to get the regular referees back on the field for the NFL.

President Obama, who didn’t find much time to meet one-on-one with any foreign leaders at the United Nations this week, did catch up on the infamous Monday night game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, saying a questionable last-second touchdown call shows why the league needs to get back the regular refs, who are locked out by the owners in nasty labor dispute.

Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsinite whose Packers were on the wrong end of the call, agreed — though he couldn’t resist a shot at the president, too. The replacement refs’ performance “reminds me of President Obama and the economy,” Mr. Ryan told an Ohio campaign rally. “If you can’t get it right, it’s time to get out.”

Some pols are doing more than griping.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, said Tuesday that he would introduce legislation banning the NFL from using replacement refs at games in his state. That would affect New York Giants and New York Jets games played in New Jersey.

He said the NFL, which has sued to stop sports betting in New Jersey, is being hypocritical by letting second-tier officials call games when they are not prepared for the job.

“The reason why they’re suing us is the integrity of the sport. Now you’re putting a substandard product out there. You can’t have it both ways,” he told The Washington Times.

The NFL has been using replacement referees for the first three weeks of this season after league owners locked out the unionized refs over the summer in a dispute over the officials’ pension plans.

But as questionable calls proliferate on the field, anger has risen off it, and that has produced something almost unthinkable in politics: bipartisanship.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who went to battle with his public-sector employee unions last year, tweeted Tuesday that Monday’s game with his home-state Packers “is still just as painful” the morning after. The governor added his comments to a Twitter thread calling for the regular refs’ return.

Monday’s touchdown call was just as controversial in Seattle, home of the Seahawks, where Mayor Mike McGinn, a Democrat, tweeted a photo of his son and wife re-enacting the final end-zone catch.

That was apparently too hot to handle for the state’s governor, Democrat Christine Gregoire. Her office didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Times about whether she supported the nonunion refs.

Despite the bad press, the NFL showed no signs of caving in to pressure.

In fact, the league released a statement detailing officiating hiccups in the final moments of the game — a pass-interference penalty that went uncalled, a scramble for the ball in the end zone and the officials’ questionable judgment that the Seahawks‘ wide receiver came down with the ball, when replays showed a Packers defender with possession — yet stood by the ruling made by replacement officials.

“The result of the game is final,” the league said.

John Nauright, a professor at George Mason University who founded the Center for Research on Sport and Leisure in Society, said it’s not surprising that politicians have seized on the issue of the refs.

He said politicians regularly turn to sports to try to find common ground with voters — and in this case, public sentiment seems to clearly favor the union referees over the NFL.

“Because of its popularity that crosses party lines, it’s one of the few ways anymore politicians can connect with a nonpartisan audience,” Mr. Nauright said. “When it’s sport, it seems the ideology a lot of times goes out the window.”

That could be why both Mr. Obama and Mr. Walker took time out of their day jobs to make their feelings known.

In the case of the president, it was on the same day he delivered major addresses to the United Nations and the Clinton Global Initiative, and as he came under fire for failing to schedule meetings with other world leaders in New York for the annual U.N. gathering.

Mr. Obama did, however, find time to comment on the game — first on Twitter, then to his press secretary, who relayed the president’s disappointment to reporters, and then in person in the afternoon when he returned to Washington.

“Terrible,” he said of the game. “I’ve been saying for months, we’ve got to get our refs back.”

Mr. Sweeney, the New Jersey state senator, agreed, saying it has become a matter of players’ health. He said the replacement officials have lost control of the games, and players are getting injured.

“I hope people start boycotting games,” he said. “I hope their ratings go down. The only way [the league is] going to recognize something is if it starts affecting them financially.”

It’s unclear how far Mr. Sweeney’s legislation in New Jersey will go.

But Mr. Nauright said it’s not unheard of for politicians to try to shape sports.

He pointed to President Theodore Roosevelt, whose concern for college football players’ safety helped spur the invention of the forward pass.

More recently, Congress pushed Major League Baseball to clean up the steroid era that marred so many records and tarred many of the game’s biggest stars.