Love the game? Thank a zebra

The debacle of the NFL's substandard substitute referees gave us a greater appreciation for sports officials and the difficult work they do.

They walked on to the Baltimore football field Thursday evening surrounded by huge cheers, standing cheers, and the NFL's newest stars smiled and tipped their caps.

That these zebras were now lions showed how the darkest three weeks in NFL history might become of the most enlightening periods in sports.

In causing chaos by locking out its regular officials, the NFL brought order to the way an American fan thinks. In losing its integrity, the NFL gave us an education.

We get it now, don't we? We understand this whole arbiters-of-fair-play thing more than ever, right? I'm guessing we'll now have a greater appreciation for officials not only in football, but in every other sport where once we viewed them only as uneducated goofs who are ruining our games.

Now that we have actually seen uneducated goofs ruining our games, well, we might look at that scowling NBA referee or home-plate ump and realize the sport is lucky to have him.

"The one positive thing out of this whole mess is that people will have a new perspective and awareness of the extraordinary value officials bring to any sport," said Barry Mano, the Wisconsin-based founder and president of the National Assn. of Sports Officials. "Fans think we're a bunch of part-timers screwing around being bossy and being paid too much. I think now they'll see it differently."

Kill the ump? Not anymore, not after we've seen how much worse it could be. I was in the Angel Stadium stands Wednesday night, two days after the Monday night refereeing debacle that rocked the sports world, and I sensed a new respect for the umpires. It was a close game with the Seattle Mariners, there was a strike call loudly questioned from my second-deck section, and several other fans turned to the guy and wondered how he could see it from there.

Conspiracy theories in the NBA? The only conspiracy that worries is one that would replace the veteran referees who routinely control the biggest names in sports as if they were kids in sixth period PE. Thanks to football's replacements, we've seen what can happen when giant men sense a weakness in officiating, and it's not pretty.

We learned these things not only by watching the football replacements mess up, but also by watching how they messed up. Even though the turning point in the lockout was a bad call that gave the Seattle Seahawks a last-second victory over the Green Bay Packers, this wasn't as much about the bad calls as the poor game management and administration that undermined the officials' ability to make those calls.

"People see that our guys are not just making calls," said Mano. "These guys are masters at moving through the chaos and settling things down."

Mano said one of the biggest examples of a need for respect was a celebrated play that didn't even involve an official. Remember when Tampa Bay's defense caused an outcry by rushing into the New York Giants backfield when quarterback Eli Manning was attempting to end a game with a kneel-down?

"If a veteran official like Ed Hochuli was around, they never would have tried that," Mano said. "He would have been like, 'OK, guys, game ending here, let's not do anything stupid.' He would have stopped it before it happened."

The standing ovation given referee Gene Steratore and his crew before Thursday night's game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens will certainly not be repeated after this weekend. The bro-hug given by the Ravens' Ray Lewis to line judge Jeff Seeman will happen nevermore. Granted, we're never going to love these guys like we're loving them now, upon their return after three weeks of being replaced by low-level college and Lingerie Bowl officials.

We still won't be their friends. But I'm guessing we'll no longer be their enemies. We won't always agree with them, but I'm guessing we'll have a deeper respect for them.

"It will be a relatively short honeymoon. That's fine," said Mano. "But the awareness has been raised."

I'm certainly going to think back to the lockout the next time I scream about a holding call. I'm going to remember it the next time I go on television to rip what I think is a bad strike call or a phantom charging violation. I'll be just as angry, surely, but I'll calm much more quickly now that I understand that these so-called uneducated goofs may have the most difficult job in sports.

"Right now, all of the media guys are coming to me with that awareness, all of you are saying, 'I just had no idea," said Mano, who did 16 media interviews in the 16 hours after the Wednesday night labor settlement.

I'm guessing it's not just us. Mano said that his daughter, a lawyer who never discusses officiating with him, texted him Monday night with, "Officiating in Packers game equals train wreck."

Mano laughed at the recollection, saying, "For my daughter, who doesn't care about this stuff, to suddenly send me that? I thought, holy smokes, here it comes."

Now that the debacle has ended, here come some doses of reality that will test our new understanding. There will be a close play in a World Series game, a controversial pass interference in the NFL playoffs, Kobe Bryant loudly claiming he was fouled on a drive in the playoffs … and, yes, we'll scream. But if the last three weeks taught us anything, it is that the officiating is exact and impossible and probably as good as it can be. And in the end, that will put us back in our seats and allow us to move on with our lives.

The refs will still be blind. But, hopefully, we won't.