Should NFL Replacement Refs Catch A Break?

Host Michel Martin and the Barbershop roundtable guys talk about Univision's "Meet the Candidates" events. They also weigh in on the NFL replacement referees, and whether the refs are as bad as some critics claim or if spectators should cut them a break.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael. He joins me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Fernando Vila is the managing editor of Univision News in English. He's with us from Miami. Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre joins us from our bureau in New York. And, from Austin, Texas, the National Review magazine and the Texas Public Policy Foundation - that's a conservative think tank that advocates for limited government - Mario Loyola.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, (foreign language spoken). Welcome to the shop. How we doing?

FERNANDO VILA: What's up?

IZRAEL: OK. All right. Let's get caffeinated. Let's start things off talking about Univision. The network hosted events with the candidates this week; first, with Republican Mitt Romney on Wednesday and then President Obama yesterday. Michel, we got some clips. Yeah?

MARTIN: We do. One of the first questions for President Obama was right where Mitt Romney has fired in the past, that President Obama has not made good on his promise to reform immigration during his first year in office. The president said that he thought that the economy needed his attention first, but he also said he didn't get the support he needed for immigration reform and here's a clip.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I confess I did not expect - and so I'm happy to take responsibility for being naive here - is that Republicans who had previously supported comprehensive immigration reform - my opponent in 2008, who had been a champion of it and who attended these meetings suddenly would walk away.

IZRAEL: Wow. OK. Well, thanks, Michel. So, Fernando Vila, you were hanging with the heavies this week. You were banging with the big boys. What do you think of that...

VILA: I was.

IZRAEL: ...response from the president?

VILA: You know, it's about as good as he can do. I mean, those words kind of - you know, his campaign promise has haunted him throughout his presidency with Hispanic voters. Despite that, I mean, you know, he's still up in the polls with Hispanic voters, vis-a-vis Mitt Romney.

But I just wanted to say that, you know, I was so proud to see Jorge Ramos y Maria Elena Salinas, you know, just give him - give both the candidates such a proper grilling. You know, you don't see such aggressive questions, typically, from other TV interviews, so I thought that was such an incredible moment.

IZRAEL: OK. Super Mario, Mario Loyola, what did you think?

MARIO LOYOLA: Yeah. I agree. I thought that the questioning was really hard. On the other hand, I was - remarked that the audience was very responsive to both the candidates and particularly to Obama and a lot of this comes down to personality. I mean, Romney is a kind, a benevolent, a modest person and that should appeal to a lot of Latinos, and Obama, on the other hand, is a more - is a cool, charismatic personality and Latinos go for that a lot. I mean, that's the only explanation why they would support leaders like Juan Peron or Hugo Chavez.

Latinos have often put charismatic personalities, you know, in forefront.

MARTIN: And that's - is that intentional, comparing President Obama to Hugo Chavez? Is that something that...

IZRAEL: Well, what Romney is - no, no. I wouldn't know if Romney - Mario was talking about. I mean, what Mario - are you talking to us - I mean - I'm sorry. What Romney are you talking about? I mean, he looked like he'd been invited to a dinner and he was looking for a way out the door. I mean, he had this smile pasted on his face like, you know, if I can just get through this plate of food, I can make it home. I mean, he looked completely uncomfortable.

MARTIN: Well, he - well, he might know him better than you do.

IZRAEL: OK. My bad. Yeah. OK. Yeah. That - yeah.

MARTIN: Well, wait. Fernando, you were there. What was - do you...

VILA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you - sometimes, when you're there, it feels different than when you're not there. Was the vibe as Jimi described it? He looked like the dinner party that had gone on too long and he wished he could go home or not?

VILA: I actually got to disagree with Jimi. Actually, there was a ton of Romney supporters in the crowd, as well, and he did - he did look about as comfortable as you could - as you could hope for from his point of view.

IZRAEL: What does that mean?

MARTIN: Well, let me just play - since we've - since we're now talking about Romney...

IZRAEL: Wait a second. That sounds like some masked - like you - he looked about as comfortable as a white guy could look in a room full of Latinos. I mean, that's exactly what that sounds like, bro. Just come out with it. That's what you mean, right?

VILA: Let's just say a lot of people expected a lot worse. That's just - I mean, I think that's - you know...

MARTIN: That is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

IZRAEL: He wasn't checking for his wallet, in other words.

MARTIN: Oh, stop, stop.

VILA: No.

MARTIN: All right. Let's go back to the actual forum. The moderators, Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, asked if Mr. Romney would repeal President Obama's deferred action plan and that's - that allows - that's his administrative step to kind of accomplish what the DREAM Act would have accomplished, which is to say to allow some young people who were brought here without proper documentation to - by their parents as children - to avoid deportation. And I'm going to play the clip. It begins with the Univision translator. OK. Here it is.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are you going to deport them or not? I'm not that clear.

MITT ROMNEY: I think - I have some friends, apparently. All right. I think I - I think I just answered the last part of your question, which is that I said...

(APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: ...I'm not in favor of a deportation - mass deportation effort - rounding up 12 million people and taking them out of the country. I believe people make their own choices as to whether they want to go home, and that's what I mean by self-deportation, people decide if they want to go back to the country of their origin and get in line, legally, to be able to come to this country.

IZRAEL: Hmm. Wow. Thanks, Michel. OK. Mario, does Romney have a concrete plan for immigration reform or no?

LOYOLA: Yes, he does.

IZRAEL: OK.

LOYOLA: But it's important to understand, it's important to understand something. Comprehensive immigration reform is never going to happen because it tries to accomplish several things simultaneously that can only happen sequentially. That's what, that's the lesson of 2006, you have to start by focusing on the economic incentive to illegal immigration, which is employment - which is employment, and making sure that people can not hit jobs if they are not eligible to get them. That's the most important thing.

And that's why Romney has focused on eVerify. When he says the Arizona approach has worked, he's not talking about SB 1070, he's talking about the law that was passed three years before which adopted electronic verification, eVerify, in the workplace which caused huge numbers of illegal, undocumented workers in Arizona to self deport to places like Texas. And so that's the way forward. I think we have to focus on the economics of illegal immigration, then that's how you relieve pressure on the border, establish border security and then you can go to visa reform. I think this is the sequential plan that will work, and it's the Romney vision, as I understand it.

VILA: I did think...

MARTIN: Fernando?

VILA: I'm sorry. I do think it's important to point out that immigration has gotten to a net zero. So the economic incentive is just not there. I mean there's been several studies that show that there is no more influx of immigrants coming across the border, so there's - it's actually at net zero right now. So the real question is, what do you do the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States?

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

VILA: And that's the sort of hairy issue that the Republicans just can't seem to, you know, find the answers to - other than self-deportation which is...

PABLO TORRE: Yeah...

MARTIN: Can I just - let me just say before we get Pablo, because we don't want to ignore Pablo. I want to hear what he thinks. As a sportsman, it was like a boxing match, who won - even though they work together. I do want to ask Fernando, what kind of reaction are you getting to the forums? Because remember, these oh, came about because the Commission on Presidential Debates did not include any journalists of color in the formats - in the debates that are planned for October. And I just wanted to ask how, are you getting response to these forums? Did people find them useful? Did they think that the anchors were fair? What, any response so far?

VILA: I think the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I mean, you know, Politico wrote about it and several other news sources wrote about it. You know, I think there were people were surprised to see the two candidates just be pressed so hard. I mean it's just you don't see that typically, in the debates, from the moderators. And I think that speaks to the importance and the influence that that sort of diversifying the media can have on our political landscape.

I mean, Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas went after President Obama like in a way that he's not used to. Jorge Ramos directly said to his face that, you know, a promise is a promise, and with all due respect, you broke that promise. And Maria Elena Salinas said to his face that how many more Mexicans have to die before we change our policy toward the drug war? And those are the kind of issues that just don't - that aren't aired in other outlets.

IZRAEL: Pablo Torre, Sports Illustrated in the house.

(LAUGHTER)

TORRE: Yes.

IZRAEL: Promise me, bro, promise me you got the over under on this. Who won?

TORRE: Listen. Fernando, I just want to know, did Mitt Romney use pigmentation-enhancing drugs.

(LAUGHTER)

VILA: You know, actually, we looked into this because I mean a lot of people were talking about it. It did look a little off, you know...

LOYOLA: Looked a little suspect.

VILA: ...and so we looked into it. We talked to the guy who did his makeup.

(LAUGHTER)

VILA: ...and we actually got a sample of the makeup. And I actually applied it on my own face, and I can assure you that Mitt Romney - there was no foul play. He just, I think he - aside though, it's hard putting on that makeup.

TORRE: You felt well...

MARTIN: People think that he used too much bronzer. I mean I'm just - we don't know what were talking about.

IZRAEL: Yeah, like in Bronze Gate.

MARTIN: There was Bronze Gate, which he used.

VILA: Right.

MARTIN: And you actually, Fernando actually checked out the makeup.

VILA: I did. I did last night. I swear to God.

IZRAEL: Wow.

MARTIN: That is good reporting.

IZRAEL: Wow.

TORRE: That's journalism.

MARTIN: OK.

TORRE: Ooh. Sorry.

MARTIN: If you're just joining...

TORRE: A scoop letter reporting right there.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Pablo. Mm-hmm.

TORRE: No. I was just going to say that I think what the one thing that I would've hoped for from Mitt Romney - and I think performance relative to expectations is the right frame to look at this - was just specifics, you know? And he couldn't really provide those. I think when you're talking about lifting up this kind of impression of - of turning back this impression of general condescension for the 47 percent comments and all that, I think specifics would have gone a long way and he sort of struggled - as usual - in that department.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by Sports Illustrated reporter, Pablo Torre, that's who was speaking just now, Univision journalist Fernando Vila, writer, Jimi Izrael, and columnist, Mario Loyola.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, well, let's specifically talk about things that are going on the football field. NFL fans and, you know, even some sportscasters, were fired up on Monday - not because of great plays - but rather the bad calls made by these replacement referees. Now, right now, let's listen to ESPN analysts after Monday night's game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESPN BROADCAST)

STUART SCOTT: The level of refereeing - is there one word that can describe it?

STEVE YOUNG: It's kafuffle.

SCOTT: The whole thing is out of control.

YOUNG: Look, the...

SCOTT: The whole situation...

YOUNG: Chaotic.

SCOTT: Chaotic. The league officials have gone to sleep.

IZRAEL: I almost fell asleep myself. You know, it seemed to take the replacement refs forever, forever to make calls. The official refs have been locked out due to a labor dispute. But the NFL, they might want to get them back to the bargaining table right now. Pablo Torre?

TORRE: Yep.

IZRAEL: You're the man with Sports Illustrated, so you get this first. Are the refs really that bad or should we cut them a break?

TORRE: So the refs are that bad - get that out of the way first. I think we cut them a break if you can get past the idea that they are, you know, scabs, that they are filling in for a union that's locked out. I think what happened here was the NFL and the NFL Referees union, which I've spoken to both sides on this reporting the story, they both made a bet. The NFL bet, that we would not stop watching football. And the NFL Referees Association bet that we would see dramatic differences in how these games are played, the pace of them, just in the general skill level that would manifest itself, tangibly, while we're sitting at home watching these games. And the reality is that both sides are right. The NFL - we have not stopped watching football. I mean we've sort of realized, at this point, I think, getting past the concussions and head trauma that we're willing to look aside, you know, when people get horribly injured on an NFL field, and I don't think refs are going to move that needle. I don't think they're going to push us any closer to that cliff. The problems are the product of suffering, and the NFL Referees Association just doesn't have the leverage. I mean we're not going to walk away, so what is the NFL really going to be incentivized by in terms of getting this to change?

IZRAEL: You know, at this point I think maybe they should get some reality show stars, or maybe "Desperate Housewives"...

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: ...or somebody like that to referee. I think the games will be that much...

VILA: They Honey Boo Booed a referee.

IZRAEL: The Honey Boo Boo, I'd be all over that. Super Mario. Mario Loyola, check in here, man.

LOYOLA: Yeah. Well, I think it's really what it highlights is what an incredibly legalistic sport this is.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

LOYOLA: I think football involves more penalties and rules than all other sports in the history of civilization put together, you know?

TORRE: I would agree.

(LAUGHTER)

LOYOLA: And it's really amazing. And so I think that it's highlighted for the people how important these referees are and how hard their job is. You know, you can have 27 different penalties occurring at any given time and it's really hard. I mean all I know is this better get resolved before Monday night when the Packers take on the Seattle Seahawks, because that's, then things are going to get really serious.

IZRAEL: All right. Well...

MARTIN: I was like how fast would it take him to get the Packers into this conversation? This is like not quite a new record, but well done.

LOYOLA: Thank you.

TORRE: But, Mario's point about the legalistic nature of all this...

IZRAEL: OK, Pablo.

TORRE: I counted up all of the words that were in every rulebook. There are about four different manuals that an NFL ref needs to be familiar with and know, and those add up to about 10,000 more words than the New Testament. I mean it's just an insane amount of what you might call red tape, I guess. But, yeah, it's just a lot to process and understand.

IZRAEL: Fernando.

VILA: You know, I kind of agree with Pablo. The incentive, the people aren't stopping - I mean have you guys ever seen the NFL on Sunday Ticket?

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

VILA: I mean a buddy of mine describes it as a like an orgasm of football sustained, you know, over 12 hours.

IZRAEL: Sunday Ticket. La de da.

VILA: Yeah. No, it's, I mean and because the action is just so nonstop that even if a game sort of starts to slow down they just switch to another one that's something else more exciting that happening.

TORRE: Exactly.

IZRAEL: Who can afford Sunday Ticket in a recession? Really?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Fernando?

IZRAEL: Yeah. I mean, yeah. I mean...

MARTIN: Fernando?

IZRAEL: Clearly somebody's bawling, right?

TORRE: Fernando while wearing Mitt Romney's makeup can afford it.

VILA: Those fat cats, yeah.

IZRAEL: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, very briefly, though Pablo, is there any sign that this labor dispute is getting anywhere?

TORRE: With the NHL.

MARTIN: No. No. With the NFL. With the referees being locked out.

TORRE: Oh. Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The NFL. Then we're going to go to the NHL.

TORRE: They're just so many labor disputes.

MARTIN: That's right.

TORRE: Here's the problem, is that - as I think Steve Young, in that clip, sort of went on to say - you know, demand is inelastic. The NFL wants to exert its power, it wants to break unions and it doesn't like being bullied around. And until the NFL sees the PR problem becoming so untenable, I don't think that it's going to move, and I don't think we're at that point yet.

MARTIN: OK. Well, speaking of the other labor dispute involving sports, the National Hockey League instituted a lockout recently against league players, and not even a week later some of the top stars are heading overseas. And some of them are saying they're not sure if they're going to come back. So Pablo, you know, what happens to the season? Is it done?

TORRE: Yeah. I mean this is looking pretty bad. I mean I know a lot of people don't care about hockey. It's not, it's probably the most under covered labor stoppage that we have going on in sports. But the reality is this would be the third work stoppage lockout under Commissioner Gary Bettman. And the reality is that when you're looking at the predecessors in terms of what to compare this to, there's the NFL lockout, obviously the NBA lockout, this is closer to the NBA insofar as there isn't a huge financial pie that all of these teams are getting. There's just not that financial parity that the NFL has, and so you have a very rich upper crust in the NHL that is going to be fine, but maybe 27 teams that are otherwise relatively really struggling, which means that they don't have the leverage - that's the favorite word in talking about labor stoppages - they don't have the leverage to push back and that means, I think we're going to miss a lot of games and it'll be up to the NHL, which has seen declining popularity, to actually kind of resuscitate itself whenever it gets back on the ice.

MARTIN: Jimi, you care? Do you care? I know you care deeply about the Browns, but do you care about?

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: I haven't watched hockey since Gretzky. Jimmy cracked corn and I don't care.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, that's so harsh. Anybody else? Mario? Fernando? Anybody else?

LOYOLA: Yeah. I was just going to say, I think there's a very powerful existential question at the root of this NHL dispute and this is it...

IZRAEL: Of course there is.

LOYOLA: Does hockey make people hostile or is it hostile people that make hockey?

MARTIN: Hmm.

IZRAEL: Hmm.

LOYOLA: (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: Something to think about over the weekend. Thank you for putting that on a higher plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Mario Loyola Is Director of the Center for 10th Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a think-tank focused on the impact of federal policy on states - hence, existential question about hockey. He's also a columnist for the National Review magazine, and he joined us from member station KUT in Austin. Fernando Vila is the managing editor of Univision News in English. He joined us from member station WLRN in Miami. Pablo Torre is a reporter with Sports Illustrated. He joined us from our studios in New York. And here in Washington, D.C., Jimi Izrael, writer and culture critic, also adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College.

Thank you so much.

TORRE: Thank you.

VILA: Thank you.

LOYOLA: Chop, chop.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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