Replacement Refs and Formation of Conscience

By Dr. Edward Mulholland | Benedictine College Asst. Professor of Classical and Modern Languages

The NFL is having referee problems  — and they sound a lot like the problems many consciences are having.

In August, a labor dispute robbed the NFL of the benefit of the officiating experience of the NFL Referees Association. The NFL’s replacement referees have been bumbling calls for three weeks, from walking off 11-yard penalties to slowing the pace of the game down to paint drying.

This week, the football world is reeling from the straw that broke the camel’s back. A last minute mini-Hail Mary was hurled into the end zone, and, in veteran sportswriter Joe Posnanski’s account, “Green Bay defensive back M.D. Jennings jumped up with [Seattle receiver] Golden Tate and pulled the ball into his chest. There were numerous replays from numerous angles, but no perfect one. Still every bit of evidence suggested that Jennings caught the ball, pulled it to his chest and fell on top of Tate. Interception. Game over.”

But, in something more like a parody than reality, one referee signaled interception while another signaled touchdown. It was ruled a touchdown. The play was reviewed and the call stood. Then, Posnanski continues, “Planets exploded, Jor-El sent his only son to Earth, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was way too happy, NFL owners counted and pocketed another week of referee discounts, and Seattle somehow won the game.”

Many commentators today are decrying that play and the whole replacement referee scheme, arguing that it has compromised the integrity of the game.

It occurs to me that this story is a tidy allegory for times when we, like the NFL owners, reject the demands of the true arbiters and outsource our consciences to replacements.

Remember Hermann Goering’s defense of his actions at Nuremberg, when asked why his conscience did not register the evil of his actions? “Adolph Hitler is my conscience.” That has to be the worst replacement ref in history!

When our conscience makes demands on us, we often want to go shopping for a second opinion. Rather than accept the call, we would rather rewrite the rulebook, deem it ok, argue that the end justifies the means. “Sure, God said don’t eat the fruit, but my new serpentine friend here says it will lead to knowledge.” And, once Eve ate, Adam could literally say, “Everyone else is doing it.”

The result for the NFL, and for us, is a compromise of integrity. And just as fans across the country are calling for the NFL to accept the demands of the real refs and bring back the guys who know how to make the right calls, we too have to work hard to form our consciences, in two ways.

The first is to inform our conscience. To know the rules, and not to walk off 5-yards for a 15-yard penalty. To know, for example, what lying is (rather than “He only lied about sex”) what the concrete demands of God’s law are in our lives. This means also forming the virtue of prudence — not to blur the lines, but to know how to apply the general principles to a concrete situation. And it often means getting advice from others to clarify a confusing situation. The more camera angles to review a call, the better.

The second is to form the habit of following our conscience. This is the tough part. Accepting the call and not protesting. This is the forge of true integrity. This is where we cannot ever compromise without compromising who we are, because failing to do so re-routes who we are supposed to be. To blow off our conscience is to decide not to head toward heaven anymore.

Let’s all hope the NFL settles this issue before it loses its audience. Then again, if Sunday was more the Lord’s day and less the NFL’s day, that wouldn’t be awful, either. If we are to do one thing religiously, it should probably be follow our religion.

But let’s above all learn an important lesson: We can’t hire replacements for our conscience. We will lose our integrity, and we run the risk of losing the only prize worth striving for in the long run: not a golden football but a heavenly crown.

Benedictine College

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College is dedicated to transforming culture in America through its mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.