My Letter To Lance Easley: I’m Sorry

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.

But I’ll never forget the Monday night game from September of 2012.

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.

But it didn’t for you.

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.

The golden calf of my youth.
The golden calf of my youth.

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.



A Cheesehead

The Replacement Referees Are Reviewing My Priorities

For nearly a minute afterwards I stared at the screen, speechless: in shock. After a night of pulling out my hair, jumping, yelling and screaming blatant profanity on the grounds of my seminary (oops) I had no words. I was:

 I’m talking about the final seconds of Monday night’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. In what will, no doubt, be remembered as one of the most controversial calls in the league’s history, replacement referees ignored blatant offensive pass interference by Seattle’s Golden Tate as he shoved Green Bay defender Sam Shields forward and leapt up for a desperate throw in the final seconds of the game. If that had been the end of it, then the frustration of myself and millions of viewers around the country might be limited to smashing our TVs and perhaps burning an unfortunately placed automobile (all things considered, dear Miss Barbara across the street was extremely understanding). But even after shoving Shields forward, Tate lost the jump ball to an athletic and apparent interception by Green Bay defender M.D. Jennings who fell to the turf with the ball firmly clasped to his chest.

Where I come from, that’s an interception.

What ensued can be described as nothing short of chaos. One referee signaled a touchdown, while another signaled an interception. The stands erupted, benches cleared. After several minutes of review, the referees emerged from the booth to announce the play on the field would stand, leading thousands of viewers, sports writers and even the ESPN announcers to ask:

….the Seahawks and their fans thinking…

…and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell realizing…

 Indeed, it would. The controversial call in Monday’s game is the climax of a slew of iffy calls that have taken place this season due to a lock-out between the NFL and their referees, leading to the use of replacement referees in almost all of this years games. Obtuse amounts of penalties, questionable rulings and terrible stage presence have been complaints since the season began, but things certainly climaxed this week with what ESPN announcer Jon Gruden called “two of the worst calls at the end of a game that I can remember”. On Monday night alone, the Commissioner’s office was flooded with over 700,000 phone calls.  Within minutes, social media exploded with rants about the game:

            “If I’m reading my timeline right, a guy in a zebra costume killed all the Green Bay Packers and was named King of Seattle”

            “These replacement refs gotta go!! Packers just got the game took from them. I LOVE NFL football to much to see this type of work”

            “I’m a Minnesota Viking and I think the Packers got screwed”

I could go on, but things get rather explicit pretty quickly.

Of course, I found myself at the center of this frustration. You see, as a child I was raised, how do I say this nicely?, um, the right way:

A much cuter, more photogenic version of my childhood.

My father is a die-hard Packer fan and from my earliest memory I spent Sunday afternoon’s watching the games with him. I’ve seen the Packers through two Superbowl victories, a slew of losing seasons and the embarrassment that was the Brett Favre saga.

My mother, on the other hand, was raised on the other side of the pond; ie England. She didn’t comprehend the insanity and frankly barbaric eruptions in our house’s living room that accompanied Packer games. When anything of significance or the slightest controversy took place, my father and I would explode in screams of protest and (occasional, just occasional, I promise) profanity, prompting my mother to respond with a slightly more abrasive version of:

after which she would inform all of us that it was time for us to calm down, turn off the TV and join the family at the supper table because she’d just finished making bangers and mash.

She just didn’t get it.

Now nothing can emulate the frustration of players and fans around the league. Few of us can truly empathize with the heartache many players must feel at having the game, literally, ripped right out of their hands. The repercussions of Monday’s game extend beyond the glare of lights from CenturyLink Field, past the questions of the NFL’s legitimacy and into the righteous anger of every player that feels that the League has greedily exchanged quality for cash and compromised the tradition of football. Let’s not forget, also, that, due to this call, some $150-250 million changed hands in Vegas Monday night . That’s not chump change, and you can be sure there are some angry losers out there today. None of this is helped by the fact that, since the game, the NFL’s official comments and trite attempts to make right of the situation have amounted to:

But, all her foreign eccentricities aside, my mother did (and does) have a point (I hope you’re reading this, Mom). Some of you chiming in from another country may resonate with the fact that, outside the United States, very few people care about what happened Monday night.  Heck, within my own seminary, there’s a large contingent of folks who regarded my desperation over such a traumatic occurrence as the Packers being cheated out of a rightful victory with a shrug, sip of their coffee and “well, gee whiz…that sucks”. In the great realm of things, football is still a sport, it’s still a privilege and it’s still a form of entertainment. It really is just a game.

This becomes even more apparent when considered in the following light: since the time of the incident, approximately 96 individuals have been carted into the United States and sold into the sex trade. That’s 96 brothers, sisters, mothers and children who are now enslaved into selling themselves for the sexual pleasure of anyone willing to pay up. Furthermore, in the time it took for the final play of Monday’s game to be reviewed and confirmed, 3 children died from AIDS; in the time it took me to write this article, approximately 270 perished from the disease worldwide.  Our nation is still fighting a war in Afghanistan, one that has claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 US personnel and countless, untold and utterly tragic civilian deaths to boot. And yet, there were more Tweets over the last two days about this game than there ever will be on any of these issues, combined. Injustice might have taken place on Monday night; in the opinion of a slew of sports writers and commentators it most certainly did. My only point is there are greater injustices for us to be riled up about.

Wednesday morning, Packer players put on their pads and prepared for another chance to play, on a professional level, the greatest game known to man. It’s a privilege to play that game; it’s a privilege for me to consider myself a fan and it’s a privilege to live in a country where such entertainment is readily available. But these are all privileges, not rights.

Roger Goodell owes fans an apology. The replacement refs might do well in returning to whatever they were doing before (getting fired from lingerie leagues as it turns out). At the very least, I’d suggest they avoid entering a bar in Wisconsin for -oh- the rest of their lives. Golden Tate should flee lie detector tests, and for the love of all things holy, can those in the leadership of our “professional” sports stop arguing about money for just one season?

I’m asking nicely.

In short, when it comes down to the wire, let’s keep in mind the reality: this is just a game.

I’m not saying I don’t care about Monday night. I’m not saying there aren’t many people out there with a right to be frustrated. But, as a loyal fan, follower of the game and devout Christian, I think there’s something else I need to admit: the referees aren’t the only things that need to be reassessed.