Analysis  

 

Referee drama shows NFL how much its fans love the game

It took three phone calls to his home in Arizona. Three phone calls to convince NFL referee Ed Hochuli, who'd finally received word from his union that a labor deal had been reached late Wednesday, to go on the record with his reaction to the big news.

"Why does it matter if I have a reaction?" Hochuli told NFL.com. "Why? Who am I? My kid told me I'm trending on Twitter. What does that even mean?"

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After a thorough explanation to Hochuli about his unprecedented popularity -- after making him realize he's now culturally cooler than Chuck Norris and Jack Bauer combined -- Hochuli responded with something unintentionally deep.

"I haven't done a thing or said a thing in months, and my popularity has risen," said Hochuli, who eventually agreed to allow his quotes to be published. "I should just stay out of sight. Isn't it amazing?"

It is amazing. It is amazing that an eight-year agreement between the NFL and NFL Referees Association could generate such monumental interest. It is amazing that a referee's name is even known at all, let alone that it could morph into a piece of American pop culture.

But here we are, three days after an embarrassing episode that cost the Green Bay Packers a win, celebrating the return of Hochuli and his posse of 121 referees -- surely an odd experience for men who are far more accustomed to being booed than cheered. And you were wondering if the NFL would take a hit because of this?

Oh, Packers fans surely will remain bitter. They'll be upset until season's end, particularly if that loss in Seattle costs the team a shot at the playoffs. But is anyone going to stop watching football? Please. If nothing else, we've only continued to prove how much we care about football. Just ask any Packers fan protesting the result of Monday night's game. You don't protest if you don't care -- and Packers fans aren't going to stop caring about their team.

It's too bad Monday's madness could significantly impact the Packers' season, but it's times like these when fans must step back and recognize the reality of the situation: While football is a part of our culture, the NFL is a business, and such tedious (and at times unpleasant) negotiations often are a requirement of corporate success.

All that said, the NFL can and should walk away with some major lessons from this episode. It should recognize the intelligence of its fan base -- a fan base that grew so loud over the last few days that the league wanted nothing more than to finish this deal before another weekend of games.

In the future, the NFL would be wise to take more seriously the potential repercussions of a plan gone wrong. The replacement officials weren't adequate, and the league should have been more cautious about the pitfalls it could face if the worst-case scenario -- which occurred Monday -- took place. This could have been avoided if Wednesday's urgency was realized earlier.

Nonetheless, the NFL got its business done and now is looking at eight years of labor peace with the refs and nine more years of labor peace with the players. And the referees, more popular than ever, are headed back to work. How's that for one weird week?

These few days undoubtedly will be remembered in the NFL history books for the bizarre finish to Monday's game. Ultimately, though, it's far more likely that history will detail this not as some regrettable blemish but as an interesting story that fueled one of the more rapid conclusions to a labor deal you're ever likely to see.

"We've worked very, very hard," Hochuli said. "We've taken 18 extensive rules tests, watched hours and hours of video every week for the last several weeks. We've worked very hard to be prepared.

"I think we're ready."

So, too, is everyone else.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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