The NFL Referee Fiasco Isn't About Money: It's About Power

The last thing pro football owners want is to lose another labor dispute.


If you're looking for someone to blame for Monday night's football fiasco, begin with Steve Sabol. In the final play of the game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, Packer defensive back M.D. Jennings intercepted a pass in the end zone only to see the officials rule the play a touchdown reception by Seahawks receiver Golden Tate.

We all saw the play over and over and over—and from three different angles—because Sabol and his company, NFL Films, pioneered the three things that change the way we see football: instant replay, slow motion, and multiple camera angles. Without these things, the last play of the Monday night game would simply be a blur; you'd know that a couple of the Packers were upset, but you'd have nothing to base your opinion on. Played at regular speed, and from a distance, it's impossible to see who has the football in a pile of players. It looks like a scrum.

More than 20 years ago Sabol told me why he thought the use of instant replay in officiating was inevitable: "Sooner or later, the officials are going to want to be able to see what millions of fans watching on TV can see. There's no point in showing everyone what happened if you're not going to give the refs the same tool the TV networks have to help them make the correct call."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and other league officials have put themselves in a terrible negotiating position with the National Football League Referees Association, who are currently locked out while negotiations on their basic agreement continue. The fix they've put themselves is this: They've pretended that the men they put in officials' uniforms are competent while we can clearly see they are not.

The NFL likes to call these men "replacement officials," just as during the 1987 players strike they called the phonies they stuffed into team uniforms "replacement players." These men "replaced" no one; the players and the officials are still NFL employees as they negotiate a new contract, even while the work stoppage goes on, and when they return, the so-called "replacements" will be gone. Their only purpose, both in 1987 and now, is to undermine a union's bargaining position. So let's call them not by the soft, vague euphemism which the NFL chooses but for what they are: scabs. If this lockout serves no other purpose, it at least educates fans on some basic tenets of collective bargaining.

In this case, there are two main sticking points to the differences between the refs and management. The first is the NFL wants to improve the quality of officiating by adding what amounts to a taxi squad of three additional officiating crews. The NFLRA doesn't'like this idea because it would mean ceding the right to the Commissioner's office to suspend officials over bad performance—and it would be the NFL that would determine a good or bad performance. We're into a gray area here, one that is much more complicated than it seems, but one that you think could be resolved by some kind of compromise which also gives officials a say in evaluating performance of its own people.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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