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.

But I don't think that's the crux of this dispute. I think the second and far larger problem is money. Since 2008, the league has put $5.3 million per year into the referees' pension plan. In the interest of cutting costs, the NFL wants to stop guaranteeing how much each ref would get in retirement and in its place institute a 401(K)-type plan. This, the commissioner's office estimates, would save the NFL about $3.3 million a year. Since the NFL grossed $9 billion in revenues last season, you might think that this is case of extending a bitter work stoppage over a relatively paltry sum, and you'd be right. To the refs, the dispute is about money; to the NFL it's about power. And the league does not, after losing badly to the Players Association just last year, relish the idea of losing another union dispute.

The result is the farce we now see taking place in every NFL game, not just the Green Bay-Seattle travesty. Monday night's game merely highlighted the issue because it was the last game of the week and the wrong call occurred on the last play of the game. Because of the marvelous techniques Sabol and NFL Films gave professional football, the fans can now see—over and over, in close-ups and from every angle—just how bad scab officials are and how they can disrupt not only a game and but the entire sport.

And if you think that fans aren't disgusted with the kind of officiating the NFL has brought about, consider this little gem out of Las Vegas earlier today: An estimated $300 million changed hands on that staggeringly inept call which the NFL approved in an official statement today. (The Packers were favored to win by 3 points; an interception would have given them a 12-7 victory instead of a 14-12 loss.)

Tuesday afternoon, the NFL backed up its scabs buy officially approving their on-the- field judgment that Tate had "simultaneous possession" with Jennings, and thus according to the rules, the play counted as a reception for Seattle and a touchdown. In that statement, the league insulted the intelligence of every football fan, who can easily see who caught the ball. The NFL is also telling fans, in effect, that they can expect more of the same next week and every week until this labor dispute is settled.