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NFL officials back in stripes

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Nfl Ed Hochuli
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Have you ever heard 70,000 sports fans cheer for an official? Well, tune in tonight during the opening moments of the football game between Cleveland and Baltimore. After three wretched weeks of amateur officiating from scabs who were treated like overwhelmed substitute teachers, the NFL has ended its lockout of the ref’s union and both sides have agreed to end the impasse.

No doubt the NFL finally flinched only after Monday night’s apocalyptic miscall that gave Seattle a victory against Green Bay it didn’t deserve. Criticism of the temporary officials was so overwhelming — including enormous broadsides from former players and coaches now in the media — and the Seattle/Green Bay miscall became such a national news story that the NFL really had no choice but to bend. The league is accustomed to steamrolling TV networks, its athletes, and any other foe sitting across the negotiating table, so there’s great irony that they were bettered by measly officials — the mostly nameless guys fans love to heap hate upon.

If this chapter has demonstrated anything to fans, it’s that officiating a professional football game, with 22 human cannonballs ricocheting off each other simultaneously, is not as easy as it looks. The NFL will hopefully now appreciate that when you’re a $9 billion a year business, there’s no need to be penny wise, pound foolish. The NFL’s image took a significant hit over something that could have easily been avoided. Most fundamentally, everyone should learn that hardball negotiating tactics are less effective when your labor adversary is only a part-time employee. Most of the league’s officials have other careers, some of them quite lucrative. So while I’m sure they itched to be on the field this fall, they likely weren’t going hungry while the NFL tried to tighten the screws.

So tonight in Baltimore, expect the officials to be greeted with some goodwill. It won’t last, of course. As NFL official Ed Hochuli wrote to an apologetic fan, in an email published by Deadspin, “Seriously, thanks for your email, but I’m sure a week after we’re back, you’ll be cursing me again!!!! That’s half the fun. :)”

Very sweet, but I’m afraid Hochuli is overly optimistic. The booing — and perhaps this Baltimore cheer — will resume almost immediately after the opening kickoff.