The new American Football season kicked off three weeks ago and the constant theme of these early stages has all been about referees. So far, so familiar to fans of Rugby League, but that's where the similarities end.
It's difficult to think of a game that has gone by this last Super League season - and at levels below - without a heap of opprobrium and vitriol being dumped on the referee. Fans, players, coaches and club officials have all been at it, pissing and moaning about decisions made, often hours after the event and with views that the referee could never have had. There are conspiracies, we are told. The same is true in Australia where the addition of a second on-field referee hasn't much helped calm the criticism.
American Football takes the concept of multiple officials to the nth degree. It's a fascinatingly complex game, of course, with discrete pockets of intense action needing many pairs of eyes on it to see what's going on. The breaks in play built into the game also lend themselves to review and, where necessary, correction. It's a system that works well, in the main.
So why the complaints? The regular referees were frozen out by the league over an industrial dispute. The league, basically, wanted to remove a guarantee of 15 games-worth of employment in the NFL's compressed 16-round (plus play-offs) season and switch them from a guaranteed income pension scheme to one that offered no certainty - a typical modern-day grab for reduced terms and conditions. This was a move designed to save $3.3m per year. The league's total revenue last year was more than $9bn.
In place of the regular referees, the league had to bring in replacements. Referees in the top tiers of college football - effectively American Football's lower leagues - refused to break the strike, so those from lower down the college and high-school structure, the semi-pro leagues and even the Lingerie Football League (a real thing, sadly) were brought in. They proved to be hopeless. Casinos in Vegas pushed the spread on total points scored further and further out as scores ballooned, but the real turning point came with a disputed last-minute call which turned a game between Seattle and Green Bay. On the back of this, the players association said enough was enough and a hasty resolution has been reached with the referees. They'll be back for the next round of matches.
There are things Rugby League can learn from this. The first is that good officials are very valuable and need backing. You undermine them at your peril. Secondly, the more complex the game, the more officials you need to control it fully. Australia have taken steps in this direction and if the prospect of multiple on-field officials is abhorrent, or in the case of the RFL unaffordable, then steps need to be taken to simplify the code.
The final thing is for the fans. Next time you get in a righteous funk about a pass that may or may not have drifted forwards depending on your angle, replace that referee in your mind's eye with someone taken straight from tag rugby. Happy now?