There are Two Sides to Every Coin: Why the Locked Out Referees Must Share the Blame for the Current Mess in the NFL

Referees in the Tunnel

NFL Referees (Photo credit: Scott Ableman)

The pandemonium that ensued at the end of last night’s Packers-Seahawks game brought to mind the ending scenes from Animal House, where Faber College’s homecoming parade was interrupted by the members of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity.  Just like the town’s residents in the movie, the people at the game – the players, fans, coaches, and media – were frantically running around, totally unsure of what they just witnessed.1  One can certainly picture Roger Goodell responding to calls from the media after the game by doing his best Kevin Bacon impersonation and repeatedly screaming, “All is well!”

1.    Yahoo! Sports reporter Mike Silver ran onto the field and asked Aaron Rodgers, “What the [bleep] just happened.”

Given the outcome of last night’s game, nearly every news outlet and pundit is blaming Roger Goodell and the National Football League (NFL) for the current hysteria surrounding the quality of the games officiated by replacement officials.2  To lay the blame solely at Goodell’s feet is not only unfair but requires one to be willfully blind to the role the National Football League Referees Association (NFLRA) has played in this debacle.  While Goodell certainly deserves his share of criticism for, among other things, allowing this lockout to stretch into the season and failing to get both sides to the negotiating table with any sense of urgency, the inflexibility of the NFLRA must not be overlooked.

2.    Some people in the media (Steve Young and Trent Dilfer, among others) have decreed that the use of replacement officials has now affected the integrity of the game.  Let’s not get carried away here.  The use of replacement officials has affected the quality of the game, not its integrity.  The integrity of the game would be sullied if, for example, a referee gambled on the games he officiated and manipulated the point spreads.  (See The National Basketball Association and Tim Donaghy.)  The skill and qualifications of the replacement referees are being called into question, not their honesty or ethics.   Indeed, the NFL conducted background checks and has removed officials from games when potential bias exists.  (See Brian Stropolo.)  No, the integrity of the NFL is not at stake because of the replacement officials; the NFL is simply putting out an inferior product.

The major sticking points in the negotiations appear to be centered on two intertwined issues:  money and performance evaluation.  As has been widely reported, the referees seek pay raisesand a continuation of their current pension plan, which, over the course of a five-year contract, amounts to the NFL paying an additional $16.5 million.  Since the NFL is a $9 billion-a-year business, the amount of money reportedly at issue, standing alone, does not appear to constitute a legitimate basis for locking out the referees.  If, in fact, money was the only subject holding up a resolution, everyone would be perfectly justified in attacking the NFL and Goodell for failing to facilitate a compromise.  Indeed, given the dynamics of mediation, it borders on inconceivable that two sophisticated parties like the NFL and the NFLRA would be unable to reach an amicable resolution if the only issue was that the sides remained $16.5 million apart in desired compensation.

3.    Last seasons, the average salary for an NFL referee was $149,000.

It is most probable, however, that the negotiating between the NFL and the NFLRA has remained stagnant due to the second, far less discussed but likely extremely contentious, issue:  referee evaluation.  And the impasse related to this issue is a reflection of the NFLRA’s refusal to compromise.  In reciprocation for pay raises, the NFL wishes to obtain more control over evaluating the referees’ in-game performances.  Specifically, the NFL wants the ability to make in-season changes to officiating crews based on performance evaluation and to maintain replacement officiating crews who could be substituted for underperforming referees.   In other words, the NFL – like any other employer – wants the right to terminate or scale-back the involvement of an employee who is not adequately performing his job.

Unsurprisingly, the referees are not receptive to the idea of having their salaries tied to their performance evaluation.  Instead, the NFLRA wants the NFL to enter into a contract that will raise the pay for referees, ensure that each referee receives a full season’s salary, and waive any right by the NFL to terminate the referees based on job performance.  In other words, the referees want their employment (and paychecks) to be guaranteed for the next five years regardless of the quality of their performances.4

4.    Given the current status of the economy and the fact that the salaries of the vast majority of people are based on how well they perform their duties, it seems odd that the public sentiment is so squarely in the corner of the referees whose average salary last year was just shy of $150,000.  This may be due the lack of information about all of the issues at play between the referees and the NFL.  It could also be attributable to the inherent distrust most fans have for the heads of sports leagues.  Another explanation could be the fact that the referees did not strike as it was the NFL who locked them out as a negotiating tactic.

No successful business in the world would agree to such demands from its employees.   So, why is Roger Goodell, who is negotiating on behalf of one of the most successful businesses in America, vilified for failing to acquiesce to every one of the NFLRA’s demands?  Again, the point is not that Goodell should be commended and the NFLRA vilified; the take-away is that the NFLRA is at least as equally responsible as Goodell for the current officiating fiasco in football.5  Quite simply, both the NFL and the referees are to blame for this mess.  With all the vitriol that erupted after last night’s game, this point appears to have been lost on most of the media and public.

5.    Some may contend that a point of contention between the two sides could relate to the system by which referees are evaluated.  This seems dubious, however, since an evaluation system for referees is already in place.  The referees’ performances are currently judged each week, and the referees are ranked accordingly.  At the end of the season, the referees with the highest rankings at their respective positions are chosen to referee in the playoffs.  Thus, as it stands now, the best referees work more games and, consequently, make a higher salary.

To those believing that last night’s debacle will serve as the impetus for the referees and the League to reach an agreement, be forewarned:  a settlement will likely not be brokered unless the NFLRA is willing to compromise on the performance evaluation issue.  Therefore, the next time a replacement referee blows a call on the field, fans would be well-served to direct their anger not just at the NFL and Roger Goodell but also at Ed Hochuli, Jeff Triplett, and the other locked-out referees.