Wrestling with NFL’s ref problem

In February, I stopped writing a syndicated pro wrestling column after 23 years to concentrate solely on covering the NFL.

Little did I know they would become one and the same thanks to the league’s replacement referees.

Monday Night Raw ended about 11 p.m. ET, but the “sports entertainment” continued on ESPN. That’s where the NFL’s own theater of the absurd was on full display at the end of Seattle’s 14-12 victory over Green Bay.

A game featuring 24 penalties — some of which had no business being called — ended in a fashion more befitting an Earl Hebner screwjob than legitimate officiating. Packers cornerback M.D. Jennings grabbed a Russell Wilson pass and pulled it into his chest while wrestling for the football with Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate.

The NFL rulebook — specifically Rule 8, Article 3, Item 5 — states that “if a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers.” However, it is not a simultaneous catch “if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.”

The latter is what appeared to have transpired between Jennings and Tate. A replacement referee (Wayne Elliott) and NFL-appointed replay official (Howard Slavin) disagreed, giving Seattle the win.

Although acknowledging that Tate should have been penalized for offensive pass interference — he blatantly shoved Packers cornerback Sam Shields in the back while jostling for position — and not proclaiming the initial call was the correct one, the NFL issued a statement Tuesday supporting the decision that no “indisputable evidence” existed to overturn the ruling.

Really?

Even if you believe this, the damage is still done.

I had three friends at my house watching the end of the game. All believe the referees were paid off. One even cracked that Tate must be on Elliott’s fantasy football team — a la the replacement official who shared a similar tidbit earlier this season with Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy.

Such sentiment isn’t just shared in Casa de Marvez.

Those who bet on the game can’t be thrilled, either. Green Bay went from being a three-point favorite set to cover to losing outright.

Does this mean that gamblers won’t touch the NFL this upcoming weekend and Packers fans will boycott rather than watch Sunday’s showdown against New Orleans? Not any more, not with the regular officials scheduled to return to the field after Wednesday night’s labor agreement.

But what this fiasco did was permanently damage the credibility of the league and its high-profile leader, who has touted “integrity” as part of his commissionership.

Roger Goodell is getting publicly bodyslammed for this fiasco. That comes with the territory. Because he is so visible, it’s easy to forget that Goodell isn’t an autocrat. He works for the owners. Part of the reason they pay him an eight-figure salary is to get driven into the mat and shield them from criticism. Those same billionaires continued to draw a hard line with the locked-out referees through Goodell’s negotiating team.

The NFL can argue the referees were being unreasonable in their demands. That may well be a valid point.

However, this is undeniable: Goodell’s office displayed shockingly bad foresight by not realizing how much of a drop there would be in the quality of refereeing and then not taking steps to correct some of the preventable problems.

For example, there is no excuse for San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh improperly being given one extra replay challenge, let alone two, during Sunday’s game against Minnesota. Even if the replacement referee doesn’t get it right, an on-site league official should have corrected the oversight.

Such incompetence makes other fallout from the replacements — the blown judgment calls, the long clock delays, the inability to command respect from coaches and players who are taking advantage of the situation — look even worse.

We can only rejoice that the Packers-Seahawks fiasco served as the tipping point that caused the NFL and the real referees to reach a new labor agreement. Fans don’t want to hear arguments about who’s right and wrong in negotiations. They just want to see the problem suffer the same fate that WWE kingpin Vince McMahon’s ill-fated XFL did in 2001 amid slumping attendance and television ratings.

They want it to go away. They got their wish, but it was costly.