— Twenty-six thousand, four hundred.
At last check, that’s how many times the terms “NFL” and “integrity” have been combined in recent news reports, according to Google.
These terms were used by media types who mimicked each other like mynah birds in recent weeks, chastising the National Football League for the perceived audacity it displayed in allowing replacement referees to officiate games while it haggled over contract issues with the “real” referees.
The NFL, the lockstep thinking went, had lost its integrity by allowing these less-competent officials to screw up games with their bad calls involving such matters as whether Eeny, Meeny, Miney or Moe caught a ball.
Even the president weighed in on this replacement-ref issue, his one-sentence politically savvy doodle on Twitter breathlessly reported as if Moses himself had toted it down from the mountain.
Outraged fans flagellated themselves into a froth over this high insult to the Game of Football.
Many threatened to boycott games, which is as much of a joke as a crack addict saying he’s going to boycott dope because he now has a replacement dealer.
Another joke was that this negotiation impasse with the league’s referees and the attendant on-field foul-ups were harming the NFL’s “brand,” which is as bulletproof as any brand you can name.
Here’s how much harm it caused: The NFL’s already stratospheric TV ratings have gone through the cosmic roof of late, ancillary telecasts such as ESPN’s SportsCenter hit historic highs in viewership, nightly newscasts’ handwringing over this effectively peddled pro football, and the brouhaha helped the NFL strike marketing gold in places heretofore unmined.
When women on a morning TV coffee-klatch show start dishing about refs’ blown calls instead of Justin Bieber’s mother, you know the NFL brand-extension mother lode has been unearthed.