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No replacements

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Usually the only people who care much about referees are the players and coaches who have to live by their calls. Recently, though, a whole lot of football fans have been experiencing the force of just what that means. The lockout of NFL refs has introduced more than a cadre of new faces on the field. It's brought a level of confusion to the game that's knocked everyone who's interested for a loop.

I'm the kind of sports fan who starts caring during the playoffs. In other words, I'm not really a sports fan. For me, baseball is at the high end of my interest meter and basketball is definitely at the low end. Football represents my 50-yard line: lower than hockey, but definitely higher than soccer. But this year, with the fallout from what's going on with the referees in the news, I'm intrigued enough to listen to the sports report.

Although the season is just getting into full swing, a lot of the usual football enthusiasm has been replaced by discontent and controversy. The NFL had reassured everyone that the ongoing contract dispute between team owners and game officials wouldn't have much of an effect. They promised that the referees they'd bring in to substitute for the regulars would be every bit as competent, every bit as professional as the ones they were replacing. Most people seemed willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It did not take long, however, to see that the replacement refs were confused. Penalties that should have been imposed weren't. Advantages that should have been conferred were denied. More than a few questionable calls have been made, and contested. Some of those calls were significant enough to alter which team ended up winning a game. The result has been a crisis of confidence in the NFL, and an open and generalized concern for the integrity of the game itself.

From my point of view, a funny thing happened on the way to the stadium this season. People found out that sport is considerably more dependent on rules -- and how they're interpreted and applied -- than maybe they had thought. Theoretically, of course, everyone knows this. But to see the reactions of players, coaches, commentators, and fans when a controversial call is made is to glimpse how human beings respond to the possibility of lawlessness or anarchy. Good fences may not make good neighbors. But no fences, no proper exercise of legitimate and competent authority, no line that marks what is in or out of bounds doesn't just destroy one game, but a whole sport.

And yes, we can learn something about life from all this upheaval in the world of professional football. In every family, community, and society, the rules matter, and they're only as good as whoever is applying them. We can do everything right: train and drill, get the proper equipment, have a great coach, and build a strong team, even develop an amazing playbook. But if the rules aren't applied correctly by referees who know them inside and out -- people we trust -- we lose interest in playing the game at all.

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