The situation in the NFL has been building toward this, but Monday night, replacement NFL referees finally did what so many had feared – they directly affected the outcome of a game. Let’s take a look at how the NFL got to this point, what the issues are in this referee lockout, and where the league should go from here.
I think the first thing to understand is that the NFL caused this – this is a lockout, NOT a strike. The referees’ union was prepared to work even while negotiations continued, and from every report I’ve read the union was not looking for much in the way of gains – like anyone, they were mainly looking to keep the salary and benefits they had. The NFL proposed nominal pay raises for the officials, but also to reduce their pensions. According to published reports, the sides are approximately $2 million apart in total – or about $60,000 per team. According to USA Today’s online salary tracker, in 2009 the AVERAGE NFL player payroll was over $100 million, the LOWEST payroll in the league was $81 million. Last year the NFL generated $9.3 BILLION in revenue – and they are willing to tarnish their own product over $60,000 per team??
There was a lot of talk in the preseason that perhaps the regular refs would not be missed – that after a week or two of adjustment, the replacements would ‘get the hang of it’ and the locked-out refs would fade into memory. I even gave that line of reasoning some credence, but it has gone completely the other way. After a first week in which there were relatively few controversial calls, Week Two saw a dramatic uptick in poor calls and out-of-control games; and Week Three was even worse. I compare this situation to a classroom with a substitute teacher – the kids will push and push to see what they can get away with. The players are pushing the replacement referees, and in many cases have discovered that they can get away with far more than they could with the regular refs.
I referee high school football, so I always watch the games from an officials’ standpoint – and the last two weeks, the amount of uncalled holding, pass interference, and personal fouls in the NFL is staggering. Worse, however, have been ‘phantom’ calls, like the interference called on Pittsburgh’s Ike Taylor against the Jets, or the dubious interference call that bailed the Seahawks out of a third-and-long situation Monday night. It’s one thing to miss calls, quite another to call things that simply are not there.
Now, having said that, I do NOT blame the replacement refs – they are simply in over their head. One thing to keep in mind – the NFL did not simply take refs from the next-highest level (Division I football) – those refs were not available. They were forced to skip over that level, as well as Division II and much of Division III. The replacements are mainly retired college refs, NAIA refs, and a few Division III refs. The situation is akin to taking a talented golfer from Lock Haven University, putting him on the PGA Tour, and expecting him to succeed – it just isn’t going to work out very often. I certainly don’t blame the replacements for taking on the challenge – after all, officiating is for almost all refs a part-time ‘labor of love’. Certainly the pay, even at the collegiate level, does not justify the time, travel, and potential headaches involved. ANY ref who gets a call from the NFL to work for approximately $10,000 per game, and who thinks they are a good official, would jump at the chance.
No, the culprit here is the NFL – specifically, the owners. Commissioner Roger Goodell may be the public face that’s catching the flak, but make no mistake, he does ONLY what he’s directed to do by the owners – especially when it comes to labor relations. What we have here is a group of billionaires who have decided that they need to make even MORE money at the expense of 119 referees – and who gambled, incorrectly, that the referees were not an essential part of the game.
What’s done is done – these last two weeks of atrocious NFL games cannot be undone – but the NFL can and should swallow their pride and get a deal done, and do it this week. The NFL has done nothing but rise in popularity and revenue for 40 years – but that does not guarantee future growth, especially if the fans get the idea that the league cares more about profit than product. The owners have clearly shown their greed – can they swallow their pride? The answer to that question may have lasting implications for their league.
One lesson I think many have learned in this is that referees are much like kickers – you don’t notice them at all until you get a poor one. Competency is often taken for granted and it can be easy to assume that because a person or a group of people do a job well, that almost anyone can do a job well. The NFL, with this lockout, has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that not just anyone can officiate at the highest level. Everyone else has realized this by now – let’s all hope that the NFL figures it out…before the entire season becomes a debacle.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.