Let’s Not Make a Federal Case

From the headlines Tuesday morning, you would think a major catastrophe had occurred. NBC news headlined throughout the day that the “nightmare we all feared has come to pass.”  Since this past weekend, football fans have been in a tizzy about the quality of the replacement referees. The uproar spiked with the Green Bay Packers losing to the Seattle Seahawks in the last minute of the Monday night game. The game ended on a controversial touchdown pass which Green Bay claimed to have intercepted.

I enjoy football but the “problem” of replacement referees didn’t even nudge my outrage meter. What’s wrong with me?

Celebrities such as LeBron James tweeted their displeasure and politicians weighed in. New Jersey state Senate President Stephen Sweeney vowed to introduce legislation that would prevent sports leagues from using replacement officials in New Jersey. At a town hall meeting in Ohio, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, asked, “Did you guys watch that Packer game last night? I mean, give me a break. It is time to get the real refs.”

When as a boy I was whiny about something, my mother would smile gently and ask me to not make a “federal case” about it.  A referee blew a call and the potential VP of the country is making a federal case out of it.

Allow me to put this silliness in perspective.

Shortly after 9/11, the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks met in the World Series. Although Arizona eventually won the World Series, the Yankees made some remarkable comebacks in the late innings.

In game four, Tino Martinez hit a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game; the Yankees won in extra innings. Then in the following game, Scott Brosius hit another two-out home run in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game.

These were extraordinary events. I can remember visiting the fan forums for the Arizona Diamondbacks after games four and five. The forums were filled with posts claiming that the games were fixed. Diamondback fans believed that Arizona pitchers were instructed to groove pitches to Yankee hitters; for them, it was the only way to explain the remarkable outcomes in game four and five. Why would Arizona’s pitchers be so instructed? Yankee wins would help New Yorkers ease the pain of 9/11, or so fans thought.

Of course, this was preposterous. Even if a batter is grooved a pitch, the odds of hitting a home run are low. Anyone who has ever played baseball or watched baseball for any length of time would know this to be the case.

But Diamondback fans are not the only ones who believe in fairytales. Visit any active fan board after any loss and there will be literally hundreds of posts assigning blame to players, to coaches, to managers, and to referees and umpires.

For every hundred posts that assign blame there may be one reasoned post that calmly analyzes the game in order to learn from mistakes.

Why do we behave this way? A reasonable observer would conclude that Americans love to blame. There are several reasons for this. We need to have explanations for unfavorable outcomes. It is simply too scary to realize the truth of life—an unfavorable outcome can happen at any moment. Despite our best efforts, things may go wrong today. We will make mistakes and so will others.

We love to avoid responsibility for our emotions and to blame them on external causes. We don’t want to believe our feelings are generated internally. We want to believe we are upset because of external events and not because of our thinking. The truth is we are upset because of our thinking.

Yesterday I experienced a massive screw-up involving my children’s 529 college funds. I could feel the tension in my body; it seemed very real that I was upset because of what was being done to us. In truth, the problem needed to be dealt with; but I was upset because a flurry of thoughts was coming to me almost too fast for me to observe: “Oh man, I have other things to do than to deal with this.” “I hate calling customer service; the person on the other may not understand the problem.” “How could they screw up this badly?”

No wonder my body was full of tension. How could it be otherwise with thoughts like that racing through my mind? The truth is—and fortunately for me, I saw this almost as soon as the tension began to arise—by my thinking, I (and not the situation) was creating the tension.

So I say, keep the replacement referees. Don’t deprive football fans of their outlet to blame. Seriously, things may go wrong today; but that doesn’t mean we have to allow our thinking to go wrong. Let’s not make a federal case out of our silly thinking.


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