Column by Nathan Jendrick
SEATTLE, Washington, September 26. THE past three weeks of gaffes and goofs by the replacement referees in the National Football League (NFL) have caused football fans everywhere to rise up and scream for the return of the league's tenured–and seemingly vastly more talented–officials. The integrity of the game is being lost, critics say, because the replacements, who come from high school and NCAA Division II and III schools as well as even the Lingerie Football League, can't keep up with the pace of the game and miss critical calls that directly impact the outcome of the game. They're missing things that, presumably, the regular league officials would–and should–catch. It's eerily similar to the debate we have in swimming right now pertaining to underwater review, the only difference is the aquatic critics aren't hollering loud enough.
If nothing else, the problems plaguing the NFL right now are proof that underwater review would be a welcomed addition to swimming. Every year sports seem to be more and more important, more and more engrained in an ultra-competitive society. Why shouldn't fairness come into play? Because of inconvenience, some would say.
Comments left in articles on Swimming World, when the topic comes up, have complained about how it would add a delay to declaring the official results. And as I've said before, though I'll admittedly do so less eloquently now: So what?
NFL officials took five minutes reviewing the final play of the Seattle-Green Bay Monday Night Football game, and no one complained. When a coach throws a challenge flag, the fans don't groan because time is being tacked on to the game. The crowd isn't going to jeer at a pool, either, when people want to make sure the right swimmer walks out the winner. And that's the most important part of it all which somehow seems to get forgotten. I would gladly argue that in Olympic sports, ensuring that the appropriate athlete wins is far more vital than in any of the Big Three sports (football, basketball and baseball).
At the end of the Packers game, quarterback Aaron Rodgers complained about the officiating. It cost his team, he said, and many would agree. But he is still making $8,000,000 this year and his team's record–and playoff hopes–still rests greatly upon the other 15 regular season games that the Packers play in a season. The controversial call in the Seattle-Green Bay game might have cost the Packers a game, but not a season.
In swimming, should you be so talented to make it to an Olympic final, you have one chance to place in the money and you have one chance to capture glory. And as even age group swimmers can attest, the differences between gold and silver–while both hugely incredible accomplishments–are vast.
I asked an old coach recently on deck, “Who won the men's 100 breast in London?” He raised an eyebrow and said, “The South African guy. [Cameron] Van der Burgh.” I nodded. I said, “Who took silver?” He looked out toward the pool, shrugged, and said. “Not sure. The Hungarian guy maybe?” For the record, it was Australian Christian Sprenger.
And that kind of reaction–not remembering the second-place finisher–isn't uncommon. It also underlines the endorsement potential–and subsequent lack thereof–between first and second. It is just a single place, but one that can be lost by a fair athlete to someone taking advantage of breaking the rules and not getting caught.
In turn, we need to take advantage of the officials we have and the opportunities we have to make a fair level of play. The same way the NFL needs to make amends with the officials who can do the best job for their sport and their athletes, we need to open our eyes to technology and take the necessary steps to ensure athletes compete within the rules. Not doing so is a slap in the face to the integrity of the sport, and to the people who care about it.
In swimming, we don't tend to learn a lot from other sports, but having dozens of events in the NFL marred by issues that should have been previously addressed is an easy comparison. We've had World Championships and now Olympic Games significantly altered because we won't take the obvious step forward of adding underwater video replay. Let's make London the last major competition where we have to have this discussion.