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You Don’t Want AI Refs

CLEVELAND, OHIO - OCTOBER 17: Referee Carl Cheffers #51 calls a defensive penalty during the fourth quarter of the game between the Cleveland Browns and the Arizona Cardinals at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 17, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)
Nick Cammett/Getty Images

Time for your weekly edition of the Defector Funbag. Got something on your mind? Email the Funbag. And buy Drew’s book, The Night The Lights Went Out, while you’re at it. Today, we're talking about gray hair, Dune, Deshaun Watson, power rankings, and more.

When I was a kid, I thought there was a very good chance that I could win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. I mailed in my entry and then checked the mailbox every day, expecting a check for $87 million written out to me to arrive any second. That check, shockingly, never came. I was crushed. Also I still didn’t have a girlfriend.

But what if I told you that there’s ANOTHER sweepstakes involving a publisher that you, the Defector reader, actually have better odds of winning? Sure, the prize in question is three of my booksThe Postmortal, The Hike, and The Night The Lights Went Out—but in a way those are even MORE valuable than $87 million. So enter today and CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOREVER.

Your letters:


Given the advances in technology, why are we depending on referees to call games? Why not switch the system and have an automated system first with humans consulting on borderline calls the system is unsure of. Would that make games better or worse if you had more accurate penalties?

Worse. Worse worse worse worse worse. Humans are better than computers at gut reactions. They have the instincts. They have the reflexes. For all the times a ref fucks up a call, there are a hundred more plays they get right, all while watching them unfold in real time. You’ll even hear the color guy crow, “Really good call there by the officials!” whenever the replay validates what they just ruled, and they’re kinda right to marvel. It’s an impressive skill. There are times when an automated officiating system is useful for certain tasks, like the Hawk-Eye technology they use in tennis. But you don’t want that tech in charge of everything.

Jonathan here is operating under the assumption that an automated ref would somehow be infallible, but the NFL’s replay system has already proven that’s not true. And there are moments where you WANT subjectivity from a ref so that they let things slide rather than having a computer call holding on every single goddamn play (which is what it would do). Also, I want someone to BLAME when a call goes wrong. I want a person: an avatar representing all of the petty rules and regulations the NFL is constantly nagging players to obey, with their penalties and their little flags and all that horseshit. Refs are used to that kind of abuse and still do their jobs anyway. I’d rather shout at them when they fuck up than scream into the void at HAL 9000, who won’t even hear me.


A friend of mine just got engaged! We've been friends since high school and I couldn't be happier for them. He and his fiancé are tying the knot at their local city hall in a few weeks and then having a big wedding party next year. I got invited to both the courthouse ceremony and wedding. Should I treat the city hall ceremony & reception the same way as I would any other wedding (i.e. formal attire, gifts, etc.)? Is it wrong for me to go to one and not both?

(Side note: I lost my job amidst the pandemic and eventually my apartment, which caused me to move back in with family. While I can get to both events by car, they're both in a major city far enough away where I'd have to get a hotel.)

Since the wedding and the reception are scheduled so far apart, and since you have your own finances to consider, you’re allowed to blow off one of those events. If this was your best friend and you were in the wedding party, I’d say otherwise. But that’s not the case here. Also there’s still a pandemic going on, which means you still have a convenient (and often justified) excuse to bail on social engagements as needed. Gonna be sad when the Delta variant fades away and I can’t use it to skip a parent-teacher meeting. If the bride and groom are chill, they’ll even give you an out in the save-the-date email. We know it’s not easy for everyone to travel right now, so if you can’t come to the ceremony that’s OK, etc.

Otherwise, I’m conservative in the sense that I believe that if you wanna go to a wedding reception, you have to attend the ceremony, even if it’s at City Hall. You gotta earn the reception, which means sitting through all of the tedious bullshit a wedding ceremony usually entails so that you can then rip off your tie and get shithoused the second the bar opens. This is especially true if the ceremony in question is a three-hour, Greek Orthodox–style weddingthon. Those are always brutal to sit through. But those people go HARD once the church pews empty. They did the work, now they get to funnel whole bottles of ouzo without regret or hesitation.


Just a mere appearance on Jeopardy is something that would automatically go in your obituary, right?

Maybe if you win, but otherwise no. FUN FACT: My mom was on Jeopardy! once. This was back way before Alex Trebek hosted the show, and well before I was born. My mom lost in her episode, but she did get an Encyclopedia Americana as her parting gift, which I would later use to copy an entry on leprosy, word for word, as punishment for rocking in my chair in fourth grade. My teacher was a very particular brand of sadist.

ANYWAY, the point is that Mom’s appearance on Jeopardy! is a fun little bit of trivia about her—one I sometimes forget even happened—but it’s not a defining characteristic of her life or her personality. When she dies, and she’ll hate me for even typing out the possibility, it’s not going in the obit. I’d tell you what my siblings and I would put into that obit, but we don’t have to right now because Mom is still very much alive and full of vitality. She’s NEVER dying. Never! I WILL NOT BE ABANDONED AND LEFT A MOTHERLESS URCHIN.


What happens to a previously indisputable Guy's Guy status if they father a stone cold stud? Pat Mahomes Sr. was most definitely a Guy 10 years ago, but now? I'm not so sure.

Pat Mahomes is still a Guy, no matter how many Super Bowls Patrick Mahomes the Younger ends up winning. Given the way he and the Chiefs have been playing lately, he may end up with just the one.

Frankly, Archie Manning is a still a Guy, too. He was a lousy quarterback for the bulk of his career, but his legacy has been burnished by the fact that A) He played for the Saints back when they were a laughingstock, so he got graded on a curve, and B) Two of his sons ended up being Hall of Famers. So now, anytime Archie Manning shows up at an NFL game, I have to hear the booth fawn over him like he’s a fucking sitting president. And Arch Manning is coming down the pike soon! I’m not ready for another generation of Mannings to happen yet. I deserve a longer break from them.


I think Washington Football Team is one of the better team names in the league RIGHT NOW and I think it’s better than what came before and probably after. Do you agree or disagree?

I agree that “Washington Football Team” will be better than whatever they land on after they’re finished conducting their little Masked Nickname promotional event. The eight finalists include only two decent non-WFT nicknames, and that’s if you’re being generous.

But I don’t agree at all that WFT is one of the better nicknames in the league right at this moment. You can’t see that name without knowing it’s a placeholder, and without knowing why that placeholder exists. And given the suppressed Beth Wilkinson investigation, that placeholder name is, itself, already in the process of becoming synonymous with disgrace.

I know some people like the EPL energy that “Washington FT” inadvertently gives off, but I’ve already seen MLS co-opt European soccer-ese and have it come off as strained, and that’s in the same sport. In the NFL, WFT still scans as generic. Half-assed. It says nothing about the team or the city the way Dolphins, Steelers, Cowboys, Saints, or even Patriots do. They should just be the Hogs (not Red Hogs, with Dan Snyder still trying to work some of his bullshit “heritage” back into his precious brand, just Hogs), but they’ll totally end up choosing Brigade and then handing out Burgundy Heart medals to the troops after every Taylor Heinicke interception.


I feel like rankings exist in college sports, even popular ones like football and basketball, primarily to give casual fans an anchor point for how good the teams they’re watching are. Wouldn’t pro sports benefit from rankings too? From a marketing standpoint, I mean. Wouldn’t a regular season NBA game on a random Tuesday in February be much more compelling if it was way the #3 Bucks vs # 9 Blazers (top 10 matchup!!!) as opposed to just the Bucks vs. Blazers? 

It sure would. I consider myself an educated man, but I take AP rankings as gospel anytime I watch college football or college basketball. If there are two numbered teams playing one another, that’s what I’m watching. And if the team with a higher number beats the team with a lower number, you better believe I’m hopping on my trusty steed to let the world know that No. 23 Stanford-Bakersfield just whooped up on No.14 Oklahoma State. That’s big shit to me.

This is because college sports have hundreds of teams, so culling a fraction of them into an official Top 25 helps me distinguish the wheat from the chaff, even if those rankings were compiled by a coterie of college football reporters who are either disenchanted or completely fucking insane. It’s much harder to pull off in the NFL or NBA, where the number of teams is already limited and the talent gap between them all is, in the grand scheme of things, negligible. You’re still watching an NFL team play an NFL team, which should be enough. But when it’s a game between the Jets and the Jaguars, you’ll understand if that fact escapes me and I go wandering around Twitter or playing The Room for the 50th time instead.

People have been trying to make pro sports rankings happen for as long as I’ve been a fan. ESPN does NFL power rankings. Florio does them. The NFL itself does them. They’re never treated as definitive; they’re just there to piss me off if I think my own team has been given an improper slotting. The only way we can make rankings happen is if we cobble together an Official NFL Rankings Committee—consisting of journalists, former players, former coaches, and Mitt Romney for some reason—to sit in an undisclosed room and pore over elaborate metrics before issuing their weekly NFL Top 10, which the networks would all then affix to every broadcast graphic. Would the NFL allow this to happen? No. Would Mike Wilbon somehow be the most influential member of this committee? Yes. Do I want these rankings to become a reality? Still yes. They have snuck playoff seedings into the Bottom Line and other chyrons for the NBA and the NHL, so the networks know how slavishly I obey the numbers.


Since the touchback point on kickoffs was moved to the 25-yard line, why hasn't any study been done to see if it is advantageous to kick to the five, forcing a runback? Would the wear-and-tear on the returning team, assuming 10 active players for the kicking team, given the kicker isn't doing anything most of the time, be worth it even if the return makes it to the 28 or 30? Maybe it could be worth a point or two per game.

The median of teams kicking off for a touchback has increased by over 10 percent over the past decade thanks to the new kickoff rules in place, but hasn’t wavered much at all in the past few years. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve noticed more kickers have been able to place their kickoffs right in front of the goal line, so that they HAVE to be returned. But there’s not much evidence to support there being a league-wide trend in teams deliberately kicking it short. Even if your kicker is a deadeye off the tee, there’s still the danger of a big return, and there’s wear-and-tear on your own kicking team unit to consider.

So if I were a head coach (fingers crossed!), I’d order a touchback on every kickoff, with the occasional pooch kickoff thrown in because I love me a pooch kickoff. I wish I were more creative, but I’m not. You should watch me play Madden. I use a grand total of six plays. I am the Brian Schottenheimer of Madden.



Say the Cowboys win the Super Bowl and, feeling accomplished, Jerry Jones dies that very night. Would it be worth it?

Worth it for me personally? Yes.


Is it me, or do almost all of us look hotter wearing a face mask? 

It’s not just you. There’s sociology behind people gettin’ all horned up over masks. It adds a layer of mystery to another person (maybe they’re not ugly) and it suggests that they’re into kinky shit behind closed doors. Hence, the whole world has become your own public Eyes Wide Shut orgy over the past two years. Very naughty.

I am not with Matt here, though. I am pro-masking in terms of virus prevention, but NOT in terms of attraction. I wanna see faces because faces are hot.


Is dying gray hair a form of catfishing?

No, but you knew that already. If hair dye were a form of catfishing, so would these jeans that make my ass look firmer than a dodgeball. People just wanna look good.

Now that I’m in my 40s, my temples have gone gray. Looks very stately on me, even if my mom gasps at the sight of my hair anytime she visits. Having your stubble go gray is another matter. THAT looks like shit. That’s why I shave every day now, instead of just every few days back when I was in my 30s and still had peach fuzz stubble no one even noticed. Now if I don’t shave, I look like a bread-snatching vagrant by the end of the week. Can’t abide it.

But the gray hair up top can stay. We’ll have to revisit this conversation once the rest of my hair betrays me, but for now it’s all good. I look my age. I’ve earned my age. I have hair that tells everyone I have three kids and brain damage, so it’s a very appropriate look for me. However, there’s a little wrinkle line under my chin that suggests nascent jowling, and that’s something that I’m not gonna be so comfortable with.


I've been a lifelong Miami Dolphins fan, and as such I can't help but see the never-ending rumors that the Dolphins are a front-runner to trade for Deshaun Watson. Like most people, I have read the complaints against Deshaun, and I find them deeply disturbing. Additionally I can't help but feel like the idea of 22 false accusers is really far-fetched. In case this trade goes down, do you have any advice for a fan whose favorite team either acquires or continues to employ a player they find morally repugnant? Thanks!

The Dolphins aren't trading for Watson anyway. Every report of a trade being mere days away reeks of horseshit: a flimsy attempt by the Texans to indirectly leverage other teams for a bigger return, or those other teams attempting to drive Houston’s asking price down. If Watson were really gonna be traded, it would have happened already. Also, there’s no point in Miami trading for him when he could be arrested at any moment, when their season is already lost, and when Tua Tagovailoa has legitimately improved over the past two games (against awful teams but still). Everyone involved here is better off waiting until the offseason, when Watson’s legal situation will be clearer.

But I didn’t really answer your question now, did I? If you’re a lifelong Dolphins fan, or of any other NFL team, you’re already complicit in cheering on morally repugnant human beings. I had to cheer for Adrian Peterson after he nearly whipped his own child’s scrotum off. I surrendered the moral high ground a very long time ago. Watson has about the highest profile of any NFL player accused of sexual assault. And the charges are still fresh, so it can feel like he’d be the final test of your fandom’s limits, and perhaps it will be. But you already cheered for a team that employed Richie Incognito, yeah? Chiefs fans still cheer for Tyreek Hill. Kobe Bryant has been beatified in death. Shit keeps rolling uphill. If all that hasn’t kept you from tuning out already, it may never.


I want to watch Dune, but I haven’t read the book. It seems to be conventional wisdom that you read a book before watching the movie, but is there any good reason not to do it in reverse? It disappears from HBO Max at the end of November, so if I’m going to read it first, I’ve got to get moving.

You don’t have to read the book first. If I haven’t read a book before watching a movie, I don’t go out of my way to do so. If they make the movie right, I shouldn’t need to. I never read No Country For Old Men. The movie still worked. That’s Hollywood magic, baby.

I watched Dune this weekend without having read the book, and I don’t regret it because Dune fanboys are a curious lot and probably have unreasonable expectations of their own. Dune was one of those rare big-ass movies where the studio actually let the director direct it, so I was happy to let Denis Villeneuve bombard me with wide shots of giant spaceship ramps lowering. But there was a lot of exposition to chew through, and Zendaya only had like three lines. Also, you’re not gonna experience anything new storywise when you watch Dune. There’s a desert planet. There’s a chosen one. There’s space magic. There’s a rebellion. There’s a lot of panning around the desert for evil monsters. All of these concepts were relatively new when Frank Herbert wrote Dune, but they’ve been used and re-used a million times since (in Star Wars, most notably). In that way, the only things that stand out in the movie are the visuals and the acting, both of which are fucking awesome.

I told my sons I wanted to watch Dune with them, but they were at school all day Friday and I didn’t want to miss out on a chance to watch the thing by myself, without them asking me a million questions and all that other shit. So I watched it, and then sat down to watch it again with them the next night. They bailed on the movie after 20 minutes (“I’m not feeling this,” was what they both said), which was actually too bad because I was liking Dune BETTER the second time around. I knew the contours of the story, so I didn’t have to strain to understand it. So maybe the best way to prep for watching Dune is by watching Dune. Or just by reading all of the spoilers ahead of time.


Assuming no pressure from an opposing defense, what's the longest field goal you think you could successfully make?

How many tries do I get? Do I get to use a tee? Because I’d need to make the attempt from point blank range (call it 18 yards) and even then I’d probably fail to even get the ball airborne on the first 20 tries.

I love punting. I’ll punt a ball all day. When I play catch with my kids, I love to mix in a little punting action. Even if my punt is lousy by NFL standards, the ball still goes way high and travels an acceptable distance. Plus I get to hear that punt sound. All very satisfying. But I’m too scared to attempt field goals at the local park for fun. I’d miss and then throw my back out. Also, I don’t want a firsthand experience that makes me EMPATHIZE with NFL kickers. Much more fun to assume their jobs are easy and that they deserve to rot in hell whenever they fail.


You often mention your sons Joe Burrow and Sam Darnold, but we rarely hear about your older boy, Richie Incognito. What's up?

How dare you.

Email of the week!


A little history first: My grandfather was an only child (rare for back then), a WWII veteran, and a farmer. His father (my great-grandfather) was actually born in a log cabin in 1888 and was declared dead of the flu in a New York hospital, the day before he was supposed to ship out overseas for WWI. He actually woke up in the morgue, surrounded by dead bodies and sat up and scared the shit out of the coroner - or so the story goes. He healed up and came back home to run the farm and delivered mail on horseback, eventually got married, at nearly 40 years old, and had one child.

My grandfather was a hard, solitary man. He joined the Air Force during WWII and was a fairly accomplished military pilot. During the war, he wrote a letter home that said he was joining a special project that would cause him to be out of communication for a bit. He actually disappeared for almost a year, came home one night towards the end of the war, never mentioned anything about the war, and got up the next day and started working on the farm. Even my grandmother could only get out of him that during that lost year, he'd come back to the U.S. and spent some time in the desert. To this day, no one knows exactly what he was doing. 

Now, the story: My dad was one of five siblings and one winter evening they were sitting around the stove (this was an old farm house) and my grandfather was sitting in an old armchair reading a book. It was the type of chair that sunk close to the floor when you sat in it and he would sort of stretch his legs out straight in front of him, with his heels on the floor. That night, a mouse shot across the floor and caused a bit of a stir. This wasn't too uncommon but it always caused everyone to jump a little bit. My grandfather remained unmoved and the mouse ran right up his pant leg. My father, aunts and uncles all tell the story the exact same way: in one smooth motion, he set the book down on the small table next to him, grabbed the mouse through his pant leg just above the knee and squeezed and snapped its neck. He then shook his pant leg, causing the dead mouse to fall to the floor and said, "someone toss that outside for the cats", and reached back over to his book and started reading again.

Needless to say, my grandfather scared the shit out of me. 

And now me as well.

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