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

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


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.

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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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