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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Officiating debacle shows even NFL is vulnerable

Official Lance Easley gestures on the field following

Official Lance Easley gestures on the field following the Seattle Seahawks' 14-12 win over the Green Bay Packers. (Sept. 24, 2012) Credit: AP

The events of the past three weeks soon will begin to recede into memory as a mere glitch in the NFL's seemingly relentless march toward dominating all it surveys.

But before we officially forget replacement officials -- whose employment was terminated Wednesday night -- we can take some lessons from the debacle that reached its illogical conclusion Monday night.

First, there are few things that mean as much to Americans as football, the glue that uses nacho cheese, fantasy leagues, gambling and big-screen TVs to bind a nation. Mess with that and risk the wrath of, well, pretty much everyone.

A call in an early-season game played late at night, and closer to Nome than to NFL headquarters, ignited a collective paroxysm from players on Twitter to analysts on television to fans everywhere other than Seattle.

(Special props to ESPN's Steve Young, among the first and fiercest employees of an NFL TV partner to blast the league.)

Even the President of the United States weighed in, rushing to the defense of a storied franchise from an important swing state.

Bettors? They have been the most unamused interest group of all.

Here's another, related thing we have learned this month, and let's hope NFL owners absorbed the lesson: As powerful as the shield is, no brand is immune to tarnish, especially now that anyone with an Internet connection can share his or her opinions with the world.

If all of us could turn on the vaunted NFL this quickly, we can do it again, and so we will if our trust is violated this way. Do that often enough and, well, you're boxing, which was a far bigger deal than the NFL when I arrived on the scene a mere half-century or so ago.

At least when the officials -- including Scott Green, who now heads the officials' union -- spectacularly botched a Giants-49ers playoff game nearly 10 years ago, commissioner Paul Tagliabue publicly expressed his dismay.

This time commissioner Roger Goodell remained quiet, adding to fans' frustration.

Before the lockout ended Wednesday night, the Giants faced what they hoped was a final round of questions about replacement refs, focused on the following theme:

How might they handle a prime-time game in Philadelphia between rivals whose mutual dislike most recently was stoked by the Eagles' LeSean McCoy calling the Giants' Osi Umenyiora a "ballerina"?

"Another Sunday night, the world watching and all eyes are going to be on them, which is unfortunate,'' Justin Tuck said. "Normally in a game like this, eyes are going to be on Eli or Vick or Cruz or JPP or whoever. Those are the people fans are going to watch. Not Sunday night.''

Mathias Kiwanuka said the task is even harder with a running quarterback such as Michael Vick, who adds another layer of officiating decisions in the open field. "Those kinds of calls are difficult for anybody to interpret in real time,'' he said.

This, too, shall pass, and NFL ratings are unlikely to suffer for now. But it turns out the empire the league has built is more fragile than those currently sitting on large piles of money might have thought.

The larger point here is not about a labor skirmish with mostly nameless zebras. It is that for better or worse, the NFL now straddles the worlds of business and public trust, a balance baseball forever has faced -- with mixed results.

Will the NFL be the colossus it is today 50 years from now? Twenty-five? Ten? Perhaps so, but history suggests the odds are against sustaining this sort of success. The people in charge need to know that. Now they do. Or should.

New York Sports