Like many American football fans, the apparent debacle of unskilled referees visible of late is a perplexing and yes, even hilariously entertaining. But there's a dark side too -- I've been there on the field when the referees at a football game weren't really the referees, and witnessed the chaotic results.
This was back in about 1972 or so, at a high school football game between Monterey and Byrdstown, played at Byrdstown, TN. It was a time that when one said football field, the emphasis was often on the word 'field'. I had traveled with my father and the Monterey team to the game, and some confusion was evident on arrival.
With perhaps a half hour or less before kick-off, the coaches realized the sanctioned referees for the event were absent. Lacking today's immediate mobile phones connections, they decided to simply wait. Time ticked past and still no refs. More field side conferencing occurred. Concerned parents and boosters began to form up close to hand to observe and advise as needed.
I have no idea who came up with the suggestion - but it turned out to be a potent one. Sports-minded parents from each side would be selected to serve as refs. I have a hazy recollection of my dad assisting to create an orderly selection process. The coaches and attendant school staffers all agreed and the game was on.
It wasn't long before oddities began to occur, though the crowd seemed to accept it with good humor and warmth. But let's face it, in even the best of competitive games, the intensity of passions during a game (or pre-game or tailgate party or post-game rally or off-season depression) for many a sports fan are simply un-governable.
By the middle of the second quarter, derision and danger began to flow onto the field like a ominous spring thaw runoff. The players began to push the limits as the anger grew, the crowd all began to stand and glare at the event as if it were some shadowy stranger walking onto the lawn in a dim twilight. Somehow, my dad and I were both on the sidelines, a lot of folks were on the sidelines, on both sides.
There was a stumbling play and a massive pileup of players - and the yelling started. There was this nearly imperceptible shift as other players and even more folks in the stands seemed to all be moving forward yet my dad had begun a sort of sideways crab walk away from the crowd.
One player took off his helmet and swung it hard at another player. I recall thinking that this perhaps was not the time to be removing protective gear. And then everything gave way and the thaw became a flood of people running onto the field. My dad's crab walk transformed into his own end zone run as he grabbed onto my shoulder. We hit the gravel parking lot as the howls and shrill whistles reached a crescendo.
If memory serves, both teams had to register the game as a loss, there was some stern talk about 'knowing better' to continue with an unsupervised game, and never again did a game take place absent referees.
Yet, then, as now, the attendance at the following games seemed to rise notably. I sure wouldn't play a game that way. But I might be tempted to actually watch an NFL game this weekend.