WHAT ARE WE TO CALL what happened in Seattle on Monday night, except the most embarrassing moment in the history of publically conducted labour negotiations? If it wasn’t already obvious that the NFL is at a severe disadvantage in its dispute with its officials’ union, it certainly is now.
It was a scenario difficult to concoct, so unlikely was the alignment of its necessary components, so absurd its outcome. It was the conclusion of a football game as imagined by Thomas Pynchon; comedic, dispiriting, deeply revealing. It featured men who had been called to replace other, more experienced men in a job which requires great knowledge, steel nerves, and plenty of quick thinking. And you have to believe that those replacements found themselves wishing, as time expired and everything came to hinge on a single moment, that they were anywhere but there, in Seattle on a cool September Monday night, on the artificial surface of elaborately trussed CenturyLink Field, surrounded by a writhing and quarellous mob, and a terrible awareness dawning that they really hadn’t the slightest clue what they were doing.
BRIEFLY, IN CASE you weren’t watching: the Seahawks, down by 5, sitting with the ball on the Packers’ 24 and the clock about to expire, knew they had just one play left. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson sent his receivers into the endzone. Then, running back and forth to escape pressure, he heaved the ball toward the corner and, you expect, held his breath. “Hail Mary” they call these airborne prayers, recalling an age less secular than our own. The term presumes the intervening hand of the divine to determine the outcomes of football games. Turns out, though, that when your governing body is employing scab labour to replace the trained, experienced on-field officials that it is currently locking out, you don’t need Mary, or God, or Jesus or Buddha or Krishna; you just need a little good old-fashioned human fallibility.
GOLDEN TATE: the name beggars belief. Golden Tate? As a name? You want to ask, was he born in San Francisco? (Nope: Nashville.) Was he dreamt up to star in Westerns? Do his teammates call him The Bridge (“He’ll get you to the other side”)? In a league with a proud tradition of ridiculous names (D’Brickashaw Ferguson; LaDainian Tomlinson), that of Golden Tate earns particular distinction.
But whatever the origins of his handle, Tate, just two years removed from his days starring in football and baseball at Notre Dame, moved with a pack of pads and helmets and swoosh-emblazoned polyester and what-all else toward the back of the Green Bay endzone. He shuffled backward, watching the ball as it hung up in the moist Puget Sound air. Then he shoved Packers DB Sam Shields in the back, knocking him to the ground. This, when it is done by a receiver in order to gain advantageous positioning on the ball, is known as offensive pass interference. It’s a penalty in the NFL rulebook, but no flags were thrown. That non-call, if you’re keeping track, was the first of three mistakes made on the play by the replacement officiating crew.
What happened next you’ve likely seen. Packers safety M.D. Jennings, positioned behind Tate, leapt higher than the receiver and had the ball come to rest in his arms. Tate, wisely, tried to get his arms in to wrestle the ball from Jennings, but never appeared to get more than his hands on the pigskin. Both players hit the ground amid an untidy scrum, with Jennings cradling the contested object to his gut. It looked like a simple call.
Then all hell broke loose.
One official, standing in the middle of the back line, rushed in and signaled that the game clock had expired; meaning interception, meaning Green Bay victory preserved. Another, closer by the play, thrust his arms skyward, indicating a Seattle touchdown. Within a heartbeat a circus had erupted. Players, media, coaching staff, random passersby all joined the pile. Some continued to fight for the ball. Some were celebrating. Some were moshing.
It was, it became immediately apparent, a mess, one over which the replacement officiating crew had absolutely no control. They were too late to establish order, too late to instill trust in the players, the staff, the crowd. Having blown a number of calls throughout the game, there was an open air of hostility toward them. Even the Seattle crowd, apparent beneficiaries of this new baffling mania, seemed strangely sinister. Anything was about to happen.
On TV, analyst and former NFL coach Jon Gruden had been holding his tongue all evening. You can bet this was in accordance with some directive handed down by the league to its broadcasters back before week one, and probably reinforced with several memos since: Don’t make the league look bad. Still, Gruden couldn’t help himself, quietly muttering at one point about an officials’ error in the third quarter, a play where they got the call right, but botched the number of yards to be penalized. Gruden did not repeat himself.
But then The Call happened, on the last play of the game, in a nightmare scenario for the league, when an NFL game’s outcome, winner or loser, actually depended on which words came out of the mouth of a replacement official, and the words came, amplified, reverberant, and they were wrong. They were the absolute wrong words. Everyone could see that. Everyone. Even when they did the video review, had a chance for a sober second look, they blew it. And in the aftermath of that, both Gruden and play-by-play man Mike Tirico let their masks slip to the floor. “The most bizarre finish you’ll ever see,” said Tirico. “Tragic,” said Gruden.
NOW LET US PAUSE to consider the literally hundreds of millions of dollars in betting action that hung on this outcome. The bookies and bettors parked before banks of flatscreens in high-tech gambling war rooms, or bent over laptops or tablets, watching Monday Night Football on cable, or satellite, or on illegal pirate websites based in Russia. Doubtless some listened on the radio, in cars cruising the I-5 through Olympia, or rumbling down long, straight roads in Wisconsin dairy country. Then too those listening to the radio feed on NFL.com, in Canada, in Mexico, in the Philippines. Casual bettors and hardcore addicts. Seasoned gamblers and wiseass college boys. People with children. People without.
Now go back to that replacement head referee, emerging from beneath the hood where he watched the replay of the contentious play. His name is Wayne Elliott, and he works in real estate in Texas. Tense negotiations and eleventh-hour asking price offers had not prepared him for the pressure he faced as he walked back to centre field; he had never been responsible for determining the outcome of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bets. But he had been entrusted with the power to make such calls by no less an august authority than the National Football League, and so, wiithout consulting his other officials, Wayne Elliott turned on his microphone to make official what he had apparently decided beneath that hood.
“The ruling on the field stands,” he said, and in so doing divided the winners from the losers.
AARON RODGERS RAN off the field and did not come back. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy looked about ready to strangle somebody, anybody. Golden Tate preened and shouted and exhorted. Russell Wilson handsomely gave handsome interviews. Seattle coach Pete Carroll looked like a man who knew he’d just gotten away with something. The Seattle crowd roared and gasped and high-fived and then, like any stadium crowd, started to think about how they were going to beat the traffic.
It was a unique and grotesque spectacle. Watching on TV, I had the sense that things might quickly get very ugly. I expected somebody to throw a helmet. I wondered, briefly, if part of the replacements’ reasoning for the call had in fact been fear for their very lives had they ruled interception (or even offensive pass interference), thereby giving the game to the visitors. Who can honestly articulate such motivations?
At home, the only thing to do was stare in disbelief. Maybe even to say aloud, as I did, “I don’t believe this,” and to mean it.
WHAT-IFS ABOUND. Scary what-ifs, if you’re Commissioner Roger Goodell, or a Packers fan. If the tough NFC North division comes down to a single game, you have to believe there will be widespread unrest in Wisconsin (though remember too that the Packers could have avoided such a fraught ending by simply protecting Aaron Rodgers and letting him do his job instead of spending so much of the night on his back and staring up into that Washington sky). Similarly, if the Seahawks ride the giddy momentum of this improbable win and rack up several more, they may find themselves atop the NFC West, just a game ahead of the Niners or Cardinals. How does that get resolved? For they surely did not win this game in any legitimate fashion. Given the prominent place reserved for football in the lives of modern American citizens, do not think that armed insurrection is out of the question for the people of Green Bay, Phoenix, or San Francisco.
A WORD ON BLAME now, lest I should be misconstrued, or misheard, or misread. The villains here are not the men wearing zebra skins and standing with trembling hands at midfield, trying to determine the quickest means of escape. Those men did the very things we could expect of anyone pushed into a job they had no business doing, and found themselves trapped there, beneath the lights, and before a million hungry cameras. At one point or another, they had to have become subordinates to their innate drive for self-preservation. But they also must have realized — in the moment, or as the Packers sprinted off the field and into their locker room, refusing for a time to field a defensive unit for the point-after attempt, which the rules state must take place in order for a game such as this to be considered officially concluded, which made for perhaps the oddest part of a very odd event, that being the thought that by refusing to come back out, and with the replacement officials apparently unaware of this rule, the Packers could have forestalled the end for who knows how long, certainly many minutes, potentially hours, conceivably forever, and since everybody in the whole damn stadium except the replacements seemed to know this, the long moment seemed especially tense, uncomfortably so (all of this constituting the third and last blunder by those refs on this memorable, dadaist farce of a final play) — that they had committed the most blatant officiating error in the worst possible moment since the infamous “Tuck Rule Game” of 2001.
No, the villains, perfectly cast, are the league itself, and the owners, those would-be union busters so intent on protecting their interests that they would employ scabs to officiate professional football games, thereby endangering the “sanctity” of the product, and potentially the health and careers of the players, those poor souls for whom Goodell very nearly wept during the Saints BountyGate mess, claiming that his first responsibility was to them.
Well, here is equilibrium. Here is the universe’s suggestion that the system works, that, as Billy Bragg tells us, there is power in a union. The refs’ union has now won in all but the technical-literal sense, and that seems only a matter of time right about now (who knew the football gods had a desire for social justice to accompany that wicked sense of humour?).
By Sunday night of week three, we already had a strange season on our hands. The Cardinals remained unbeaten, the Saints winless. Ravens-Patriots had been decided by another iffy call. Unforeseen win-loss records, locked out officials, suspended coaches… nothing was panning out the way we’d seen it. Support for all the “anything can happen” adages, perhaps, but we usually have a better idea than this. Then came Monday Night Football, the flagship of the whole enterprise, the spotlight, event television, high pulpit of American life. Like you, I have watched MNF all over. In strange bars and at my local. In foreign cities and at the cottage. At friends’ houses, with my folks, at home in my old jersey and sweatpants. How many of those games do I remember? How many do you remember?
We’ll remember this one, you can be sure, as will Seattle, as will Green Bay. Roger Goodell, too. The question is, how will we remember it? As turning point? As straw that broke the league’s back? As the asterisked determiner of a team’s playoff hopes? Or merely as curiosity?
Another thing that occurred to me, that in fact hit me like Old Testament revelatory thunder, as more and more people made their way onto the field at CenturyLink, and Tirico’s voice grew more harried while Gruden seemingly went into mourning, and those poor, hapless replacements watched, stood, and felt their hollow sense of powerlessness grow, was that this was it; this was the reason to tune into live television coverage of sporting events, week after week, year after year. Unscripted surprise. Unbearable drama. History. The pure and rare sense that anything — absolutely anything — could happen.