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There's no replacing good referees


This column is also award-winning writer Frank Deford's weekly sports commentary on NPR.

So, we found out that the National Football League is too big to fail. But it's not so big that it couldn't make a complete fool of itself and show to the world that its owners are stingy, greedy nincompoops; Not so big that it made its commissioner, Roger Goodell, stand out in front, looking lost and small, so that their erstwhile tough-guy commander suddenly became an errand boy, losing respect and dignity that will be hard to regain the next time he needs it.

But, yes, so big that the National Football League unintentionally taught us all a big lesson.

Officials are a big deal.

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In every sport.

Don't forget this: there're only two groups of people that really matter in a game: the players and the officials. Oh yes, in a whole sport, all sorts of people play significant roles, but the game's the thing that makes the sport, and everything else is ancillary. Think about it this simple way: could the NFL have kept on blissfully playing games with replacement coaches? Yes. With replacement general managers? Yes. With replacement television analysts? Oh my heavens, yes. With replacement cheerleaders? Uh-huh. With replacement fans? Yes. With replacement owners? Yes, yes and yes.

But what the NFL showed us, in their bumbling arrogance, is that without capable referees, no sport got nothing, 'cause they ain't got a game. Some critics complained that the NFL refs, who hold down weekday jobs, only work in public for a few hours for a few autumn weeks and ought to fall on their $150,000 a year and thank their lucky stars they recovered a fumble. Look, a lot of people in show business make that kind of money for those kinds of hours when they reach the top of their profession. Hey, the owners cut coupons for that amount every week at that 15 percent tax rate, don't they?

Sure, every Madame Butterfly at La Scala blows a note now and then and Roger Federer double faults occasionally, so yes, too, even the best NFL zebras, and the best baseball umpires and the best NBA refs blow a call ever so often. But, boy, are they good at what they've learned to do, and that's why the players can show off and that's why the games are good.

So, thank you Mr. Hubris NFL for showing the fans that, well... at least until the next controversial hometown defensive pass interference call... how crucial good referees are for us to enjoy the game and believe in the game. They matter. I've never forgotten, playing high school basketball, running over to throw the ball in. I was a bit winded. The old ref just said: "Take it easy, son. Catch your breath. Aint nothin' gonna happen till I hand you the ball."

Remember that verity, fans. Don't forget it, owners. The refs are the ones who make it possible. They give us the ball.