I wish I had a positive spin to put on this story, Hampton, a panacea for the three-week eyesore we just witnessed. But there isn't one, at least not one that I can see. The NFL decided it was going to "win" the labor negotiations with the referees, just as it did with the players last year. The owners and Goodell were willing to sacrifice the short-term integrity of the game for a long-term leg up in all their labor disputes—simply put, lose one negotiation and you open the door to lose more down the road. I spoke with Tulane University sports law professor Gabe Feldman about the ref issue, and he said that a large part of it came down to "the NFL's belief that the players and the refs are not bigger than the league." And though the NFL had to compromise more it might have wanted because of Monday night's fiasco, it still got what it really wanted—starting in 2017, the refs will have a 401(K) plan like every other league employee, rather than a pension plan.
If there's one silver lining from this lockout, it's that we won't remember it in 20 years. Had the replacement refs been in place for a full season, the Packers-Seahawks ending might not have been the low point by the end of it all (that would be a player getting seriously injured, like Darrius Heyward-Bey almost was). But this will fade into the tableau of league history, like the players' strike of 1987 or Spygate. Did you know that the league used replacement refs in Week 1 of the 2001 season? Until last week, I didn't either. Scratch that—I once knew, but had forgotten because the NFL marched on and we all started caring about something else.
The sour taste of this lockout may take a little longer to go away, especially if you're a Packers fan. But come December, or January, or Feb. 3 in New Orleans, the focus of football fans will have shifted fully to the 22 men on the field wearing helmets. That, at least, we can look forward to.