The NFL's Refpocalypse Is Over: Did Anyone Win?

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Union referees return to the field tonight—finally. But did either side get what they wanted?

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Reuters

The NFL and its referees association reached a deal late Wednesday night, ending a stalemate that began in June when their previous contract expired and the league officially locked out the refs by hiring replacements.

The turning point of the negotiations seemed to be the nationally broadcast marquee Monday Night Football game, where a botched call in the closing seconds of the game between Green Bay and Seattle cost the Packers a win. More than 70,000 messages reportedly flooded the league's phone lines after the infuriating result, not to mention the countless tweets—many vulgar—credited to everyone from participants in the game to fans and former players.

CBS Sports' Mike Freeman said an unnamed owner told him that the MNF debacle was the game-changer.

"That game reshaped everything," the owner said. "I can't remember the last time our league was a laughingstock nationally. It shook me. I think it shook a lot of people.

"We were prepared to go longer. We couldn't after that."

With a tentative eight-year agreement now in place—the longest in the league's history with the officials—Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was at the bargaining table for round-the-clock negotiations on Tuesday and Wednesday, lifted the lockout. A regular crew of refs can officiate the Thursday night game in Baltimore between the Ravens and Cleveland Browns. The deal will officially be ratified after members of the group of 121 regular officials review and sign it this Friday in Dallas before sending crews out to their assigned games this weekend.

So who won this labor dispute? It's hard to say either the league or officials walked away winners completely. They both appeared to accept compromises in the deal. If there are any winners, though, it's the fans and the players. The Seahawks can probably be thrown in there, too, since they were able to steal a win before the agreement. Fans again get a better product on the field. Players get a safer, more consistently called game where they better understand the expectations and can live with the results.

The Packers were obviously one of the biggest losers in this whole three-week affair, the only team of the 32 that suffered a loss on the field directly attributed to the replacement officials. In the general public's perspective, the NFL also walked away from this circumstance at least partly damaged. Not irreversibly so, but its credibility came into question. Beyond that, the handful of coaches fined tens of thousands of dollars for their conduct in dealing with the mostly dreadful replacements took a small hit, be it strictly financial, as well.

Before the accord was reached, the two sticking points were reportedly the future terms of the officials' pension plan, as well as the league's demand to add new refs to the pool to increase the caliber of officiating and potentially replace underperforming officials. The union contested both, believing that the league has plenty of money to sustain the previous pension agreement, also stating that adding additional crews of officials would result in fewer assignments, reducing pay for all. In essence, the wealthy taking economic losses out on their employees.

"This is widespread corporate phenomenon throughout corporate America, and the NFL owners are simply joining the crowd," said Bill Sokol, an attorney of more than 35 years at one of the country's largest labor firms, San Francisco Bay Area-based Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld. "Their own particular twist in my opinion is that they are following what is a new attitude in corporate America ... that [it's] become almost fashionable to be absolutely intransigent and refuse to be reasonable, to refuse to be bipartisan in collective bargaining, and that translates into the refusal to cooperatively find a mutual solution."

The NFL amassed $9.3 billion in revenues for 2011. Based on projections, which include $4.9 billion in annual TV revenue increases beginning in 2014, the league will accrue approximately $17.9 billion in earnings the final year of this new contract with the officials. In early August, NFLRA president Scott Green noted in an interview with Comcast Sports Baltimore that his union's overall request was less than a third of a percent of current revenue.

League spokesman Greg Aiello defended the proposal at the time, saying the desire to add up to three full crews "would reduce stress on the officials by allowing each official to work fewer games, would reduce travel, would allow us to do more intensive training, integrate younger officials more effectively, increase diversity, and improve quality of officiating."

The referees, who are part-time employees, feared they would eventually be phased out in favor of these newly trained full-time officials. NFL refs averaged $8,764 per game in 2011, an annual salary of $149,000. Certainly not bad for half-time laborers who work around six months each year not including offseason training and study, though many of also maintain careers outside of football.

The union was seeking a pay increase with the new contract and successfully negotiated one. After approximately a 16-percent raise to an average of $10,176 per game in 2013, there will be an annual bump of about 2.9 percent until each makes more than $12,000 every Sunday by the final year of the contract. The officials also reportedly received a $2.5 million lump sum to split among themselves for the three weeks of missed checks during the lockout, which amounts to a little less than $6,900 each per game.

The August proposal from the league offered average salaries of approximately $189,000 by 2018, or just better than $11,000 per game, and annual pay increases of 2.82 percent. The officials were able to leverage bigger wage increases, both initially and annually, but it came at the cost of allowing the NFL the option of hiring a number of full-time officials of their choosing who will work year-round starting in 2013.

Perhaps more importantly, the union was able to preserve their current defined benefit pension plan, at least for now, despite the league's efforts to immediately move to a 401(k) program based on contributions. In the new labor deal, the same plan will be maintained through the 2016 season, or until a ref earns 20 years of service, whichever happens first. According to the league's release on the deal, after that, the retirement plan will be frozen and moved to a 401(k) system.

Starting in 2017, officials' retirement benefits will be based on a defined contribution agreement, which includes a partial match on additional money added by the ref to the account. The league will kick this program off with an annual average of more than $18,000 per official. That number will jump to more than $23,000 by the end of the contract in 2019.

This is the structure of the agreement that the public will know about, anyway.

"I suspect what happens in a situation like this is that whatever the final settlement is, we won't really know it," said Sokol. "People always assume, 'Oh, you'll know all of the terms of the deal when it's done because we have transparency and investigative press and so on,' and the truth is that in many labor-relations situations, there is the deal that is presented to the public, and there's also the deal that's just the real deal that nobody will see. You have to watch these things very closely when a settlement is made to try and figure out what's real and what's just face saving."

Whatever the actual outline of the contract, fans and players alike should be thankful that it's a long-term deal, and can now rest easy that the NFL will once again put its best foot forward for the foreseeable future. It is time to turn the page on this unfortunate, unnecessary chapter in the league's history, and as quickly as possible. Thursday night in Baltimore should help to do just that.

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Kevin Fixler is a writer based in Oakland, California. His work has appeared on Yahoo! and Sports Illustrated.

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