To Lance Easley, former NFL referee,
I’m sorry. That’s the first and final thing I want you to know. It’s the point of this letter. I’m sorry for what has happened to you. And I’m sorry for the part I played in your pain.
I should give you some context. For starters, I once hated you. Okay, hate seems too strong a word. But I was very angry at you. It was only briefly, but very angry nonetheless. Strange thing is, until recently, I didn’t even know your name. But I was still angry.
Because I’m a Green Bay Packers fan. I’ve always been a Packers fan, ever since I was seven-years-old, when Brett Favre lead them to their third Super Bowl victory. I watched the game with my father, yelling loudly and running around the room in my knock-off kiddie jersey. Since then I’ve cheered the Packers through interceptions and touchdowns galore, through losing seasons, rebuilding years and to another Super Bowl. I even married a girl from Green Bay, a die-hard Packer fan herself (thus she understands my impulse to wear cheese on my head once a week).
The point is: I’ve seen a lot of Packer games, a lot of wins and losses. And I can’t remember most of them.
On that day, the Packers had a five-point lead on the Seattle Seahawks. Russell Wilson, now an NFL superstar, was just a rookie and had barely beat out Aaron Rodgers’ previous backup, Matt Flynn, for the starting position. The two teams had been gridlocked in a defensive battle but Seattle was driving down the field, praying for a touchdown to win the game. And as time ran out, Wilson lobbed a pass to the left corner of the end zone towards Seahawks receiver Golden Tate. M.D. Jennings, a Green Bay defender, also jumped. Jennings actually caught the ball, but Tate got a hand on it. The two fell to the ground in a desperate struggle. You ran up and ruled the pass a touchdown. Another referee called it incomplete. Commotion ensued, and you had to review the play.
Announcers commented that the touchdown had to be overruled. Sports experts confirmed these insights, all while you watched the replay under the hood. But then you trotted out onto the field and gave the ruling.
And you said it was a touchdown. Time had expired. Seattle won.
At about that moment I was jumping around my apartment, like a grasshopper with caffeine, propelling myself of every stable surface in the room. And I was yelling, yelling bloody murder, yelling until I woke my roommate and he tackled me then stuck a sock down my throat.
I just couldn’t believe it. What an awful call.
But then, a strange thing happened: the next day I woke up and I was okay. I ate breakfast; I went to class; I worked out. It was a normal day. A good day even. Life went on.
You suffered constant siege from the media, mockery from comedians, and berating from NFL fans across the country. You were thrust from your private life working for Bank of America, doubling as a referee for high school football and small college basketball games, into the limelight of scandal.
Things got worse. Your struggle with depression reared its ugly head, fueled with public ammunition. You suffered intense panic attacks. You slipped into dangerously suicidal condition, requiring hospitalization. You were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. You lost your career and, even worse, your marriage.
All because of one call, during one game, at the beginning of one season of football.
Don’t get me wrong: I love football. I played football for most of my life. This was in Ohio, by the way, where football is life. As a male within this culture, it was expected that on Friday night I be on the field, in the band, or smooching with a coed under the bleachers. Riding the bench, however, was about as respectable an option as ordering tofu at a steakhouse. Thus football became my life. I worked my butt off to little success. And without a butt I even did a miserable job of warming the bench.
Without athletic success to balloon my identity, I was forced to learn a simple but poignant lesson: it’s just a game. A fun game, an admirable game even, but just a game nonetheless. But the pathetic reality of our culture, and the culture of my youth within it, is that we’ve turned a game into something much bigger than a game.
Because professional football is, undeniably, an industry. Millions of dollars exchanged hands in Vegas following the ‘fail Mary’ play. Fantasy leagues across the country were disrupted. Negative publicity cost the NFL thousands of dollars and proved to be a critical tipping point in negotiations with their officiating unions.
And when a culture elevates something recreational, something of tertiary importance for our existence to a false level of primacy, there is always collateral. Such idols tend to fall and fall hard.
And this time you were the collateral, you were beneath our crashing idol.
And so I want to apologize because it’s my fault, our fault. Every single person watching the fateful play on the Monday night feeds into the culture of marketed entertainment. We’re all wheels in the machine that produces this idol. And we all, without hesitation, found ourselves willing to sacrifice the dignity and respect of a human being as a necessary means.
It’s a sad day – pitiful really- when people place their idols above fellow humanity. And you bore the brunt of all our idolization.
And so I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry for all the pain you’ve endured at our expense; for the turmoil our idolization has caused to you. I’m sorry. And I’m thankful that you were courageous enough to share your story, to once again make your self available to the scorn and mockery of sentiments like: “Seriously? You made a shitty call- of course people are gonna be mad! Get over it!”
I’m sorry. And I’ll remember you in my prayers. And when I do I’ll give thanks, not for your pain, but for your willingness to be vulnerable in your pain. With that vulnerability I hope you’ll convict and remind all of us with the pertinent truth: it’s just a game. Treat it as such.