You think the past three weeks of NFL football (aka Replacement Refs Run Amok) were bad? Nostalgic is more like it. These were Throwback Weeks, reminiscent of the league's first few decades, when officiating ranked fairly far down the list of priorities — just below remembering to bring a ladle for the water bucket.
Nothing has happened this season that didn't happen in, say, 1931, when an umpire had to use his own watch to time a game between the Providence Steam Roller and Cleveland Indians because his stopwatch broke. He wound up shortening the length of the third and fourth quarters by several minutes — enough to enrage the Steam Roller, who were 7 yards from the winning touchdown when the final gun suddenly sounded.
Several years later, field judge Doc Mooney made a call in the last minute that went against the Chicago Cardinals, and the Cardinals surrounded him afterward and tore his shirt to shreds. Mooney's reaction: "Oh, that's nothing. I've had it torn off me lots of times."
So it was for the zebras in the early days. So officiating was, too. A ref in 1933 would be hired on a per-game basis for $25 — the home team doing the hiring — and if he did a good enough job of keeping the peace (and keeping the home team happy), he might be invited back. Walter Halas, brother of Chicago Bears owner-coach George Halas, actually worked a Bears game that year. Sportswriters also were enlisted as whistle blowers (to keep the league in the good graces of newspapers as much as anything).
Back then, it wasn't unusual for somebody to officiate a college game Saturday and a pro game Sunday. The challenge was to keep the two rule books straight and not, for instance, call an NFL ball carrier down just because his knee(s) hit the ground. (Until the mid-'50s, you could get up and keep running in the pros as long as your forward progress hadn't been stopped.)
And woe to any zebra who really, really messed up. Coaches and players weren't nearly as restrained in their criticism as they are today. After referee Bill Halloran blew one in 1938, Washington Redskins coach Ray Flaherty said, "If that fellow has any conscience, he'll never have another good night's sleep as long as he lives." Flaherty might have been fined for that outburst, but I doubt it.
Fast-forward 75 years (give or take) and, well, officials — and their competence — have never been more valued. If that wasn't clear before Seattle's Russell Wilson threw an interception for a game-winning touchdown Monday night, it's certainly clear now. Once the Screw-up at CenturyLink hit the airwaves and the blogosphere and the Twitterverse, it was a matter of hours before the NFL and the locked-out refs were back at the bargaining table, banging out the deal that should have been made months ago.
The regular officials — the zebras, so to speak, who've earned their stripes — are hardly infallible. We'll be reminded of that soon enough, perhaps even this weekend. (Though I'm mostly worried that Ed "Muscles" Hochuli, in his rustiness, might strain a pectoral muscle while signaling a first down.) But the officiating has never been fairer or more professional, in part because of instant replay and in part because reffing has increasingly become a full-time pursuit.
The salary scale, which has climbed with each negotiation, reflects that. As recently as 1990, the top pay per game was $2,100, which figures out to $33,600 a season (playoffs excluded). Next year, officials will be able to make as much as $173,000, and by the end of the contract the ceiling will be $205,000 — plus perks such as retirement (and, in the case of Hochuli, I'm guessing, an unlimited supply of 5-Hour Energy).
They're a long, long way away from 25 bucks a day (with, if necessary, a "reduced-rate weekend" train ticket tossed in). But, hey, if they can keep quarterbacks from throwing any more interceptions for game-winning TDs, they'll be well worth it.
I still say, though, there should be a moment of silence at every NFL stadium this week for the replacement refs. Or at least a moment of screaming and vein-bursting yelling. Seems only fitting.
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Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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