If you’re an NFL fan, or if you’ve been within 10 yards of one on a Monday, you’re probably aware that the NFL is using replacement referees this year. And it isn’t going well.
Just before the start of the season this year, the NFL locked out its referees after they couldn’t come to an agreement on a new contract. This lockout is more like other nonsports labor issues than the recent player lockouts in the NFL, NBA and NHL.
The biggest issue is retirement benefits. The NFL wants to end the defined-benefit pension package the referees currently have and move to a 401(k).
This has been a common move in private companies, most of which can justify it by showing increased competition and costs and lower profits. However, as the referees union points out, this isn’t so for the NFL. The league is a monopoly and is actually getting more profitable, to the tune of $9 billion last year.
The NFL insists it will not grandfather in current officials in this move, so the entire body of referees stands to lose. This is the key reason for the lockout and probably where the NFL will end up capitulating.
Compensation is also an issue. There are 121 union referees sharing a fixed pool of funds paid by the league, currently $18 million. That comes out to an average of about $150,000 per year.
In addition to asking for a larger compensation pool, the refs are fighting another major demand by the NFL: more officials. There are currently 17 teams of officials, which allows for a maximum of only one extra team every week as backup. The NFL wants to expand this to 20 teams, so there are more-seasoned referees available for retirement, absenteeism and development. Refs see this as adding more members to their compensation pool and threatening their job security.
The NFL went into the lockout confident it could weather it. After all, it prepared by recruiting what it considered the best alternatives possible, and the locked-out refs had no leverage. Unlike the player lockout, the games could go on without the refs.
However, just three weeks into the season, the locked-out refs got their leverage through no action of their own. The replacements have almost handed them a new contract.
The poor quality of officiating from the replacement refs has been the top story so far this year, both on and off the field.
Everyone is used to questionable calls or the relatively rare outright mistake. But the mistakes by these replacements are just appalling. They’ve awarded 9-yard first downs, extra timeouts and replay challenges. Last Sunday, one referee marked off a 15-yard penalty from the wrong 41 yard line, making it a 27-yard penalty.
The most significant yet, though, occurred during Monday Night Football. Down by 5 points with seconds left in the game, Seattle QB Russell Wilson heaved a Hail Mary to the endzone, where it appeared to be intercepted by Green Bay’s MD Jennings, caught in a crowd of players. This happens every time there’s a Hail Mary; it’s not an unusual play.
This time, however, Seattle WR Golden Tate got one arm around the ball. Simultaneously, one official signaled interception, another touchdown. It ended up a game-winning touchdown for Seattle amid mass confusion on the field. Check out the post-game reaction.
If that one play, which determined the outcome of the game, doesn’t force the league back to the bargaining table this week, we should all expect a very unpredictable season this year.