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Originally published September 29, 2012 at 5:51 PM | Page modified September 29, 2012 at 8:21 PM

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NFL's popularity remains despite league's best efforts to ruin it

Even bullying its own referees with an unnecessary lockout couldn't hurt the NFL's appeal with fans in the end.

Seattle Times NFL reporter

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The standing ovation demonstrated the NFL's power even in defeat.

The league is so popular that even its officials get cheered. At least they did Thursday night in Baltimore, which was the first game after the lockout of the regular on-field officials ended. Referee Gene Steratore's crew was greeted with a loud ovation upon its return to work.

Talk about the NFL succeeding in spite of itself: The league created its own crisis, locking out its regular officials over an amount of money that equated to pocket change in comparison to league revenues. The NFL staged three weeks of games officiated by men — some of whom were Lingerie League rejects — who produced a crisis of confidence so great that even the president of the United States felt compelled to say a call was terrible.

But no one stopped attending.

No one stopped watching.

And when the NFL brought back the regular officials, people applauded the men who are said to be doing their job best when no one notices them.

Teflon's got nothing on the NFL when it comes to escaping a sticky mess. Steroids scandals cripple baseball, not football. Basketball locks out its players and takes a decade to recover. The NFL does the same and all was forgotten once it ended.

For the past two weeks, the NFL seemed determined to undermine the legitimacy of its own product in the eyes of consumers.

How else do you explain a lockout precipitated over the crumbs from the league's multi-billion-dollar pie? The sticking issue: the officials' pension plan. The NFL wanted to replace it with 401(k) contributions, with the justification that it's happening to everyone else in America, so why should the referees — who are part-time employees — be immune?

And it's true, they are part-time employees. They're also pretty important to not only the flow of the game, but the legitimacy of its results.

The league thought the officials were parts that could be replaced. The NFL's lockout was based on a belief that the games would operate smoothly enough with replacement officials to scare the regulars into accepting what had been offered and thanking the NFL for the chance to keep working.

This was no risk/reward calculation, but a demonstration of hubris. The NFL didn't weigh the potential downside with the fact that they were arguing over $3.3 million in a nearly $10 billion business. The league approached it not as a business, but as a bully: You get what we say you get.

The referees did not cave, banking on the fact they possessed a unique skill set. Why should they accept a reduction in benefits from a league that's reaping record-setting revenues?

And then they watched the league go find others capable of officiating the league's games. Or at least it tried to.

The resulting debacle turned the league into a punch line and turned the referees that everyone used to curse into household names.

Where have you gone, Ed Hochuli? Can't I just get Jeff Triplette?

The decision to award Seattle a touchdown — and a victory — on the final play of Monday night's game against Green Bay will always be seen as the tipping point, but that was only the last and most obvious in a series of questionable calls that had fans, players and media questioning the league's common sense in continuing what had become a farce.

The NFL finally decided to cut the losses to its credibility. It brought the regular officials back, and it's safe to say that at this moment in time, they've never been so appreciated.

On Thursday, there was a report that Mike Carey was the referee assigned to Seattle's game in St. Louis on Sunday, prompting someone to ask: "He's one of the best, isn't he?"

Just one more case of the NFL increasing its popular appeal in spite of itself — because even a self-inflicted accident like the referee lockout ends in applause.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com


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