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NFL follows corporate America's game plan in referees dispute

Everybody's talking about the Packers and Seahawks, but the issues in the labor dispute behind the debacle have gotten less attention. You ignore them at your peril, because a lot of companies are calling the same plays.

September 26, 2012|Michael Hiltzik
  • Referees make a controversial touchdown call in the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks game.
Referees make a controversial touchdown call in the Green Bay Packers,… (John Lok/Seattle Times )

The one thing about the National Football League on which almost everyone agrees is that it takes its job of providing first-rate entertainment very seriously.

That could be one explanation for the league's effort to supplement the pleasure of watching two teams of superbly trained athletes compete by adding the comedy stylings of pick-up referees, capped by the spectacular fiasco of Monday night's Seattle Seahawks-Green Bay Packers game.

Or the explanation may be simply that a business collecting more than $9 billion in revenue this year sees value in sacrificing one crucial component of its success — credible and firm enforcement of the rules — merely to save about $5 million a year, or five hundredths of a percent.

That's the difference in retirement contributions between what the league wants to pay its referees and what the referees have said they'd accept. And that's one of the major sticking points in the high-profile labor dispute between the NFL and its refs that has made a mockery of the league's supposed commitment to professional on-field standards and player safety.

Most news coverage of this labor dispute focuses on the ineptitude of the fill-in referees; this week there will be a lot of hand-wringing over the flagrantly bad call that turned a Green Bay interception into a game-winning Seattle touchdown, as if by alchemy. Occasionally you'll read that the disagreement has something to do with retirement pay. But it's really about much more.

It's about employers' assault on the very concept of retirement security. It's about employers' willingness to resort to strong-arm tactics with workers, because they believe that in today's environment unions can be pushed around (they're not wrong). You ignore this labor dispute at your peril, because the same treatment is waiting for you.

Even before Monday night, discontent with the replacement refs had spread so widely — from fans, to coaches and players, even to broadcasters, who almost never criticize the league — that the NFL could not overlook the damage to its reputation. In the last week, the league and the National Football League Referees Assn. had started talking with each other again. Those talks are likely to pick up urgency now. Whether the NFL's plutocratic owners will recognize that good officiating costs money — that's another question.

To recapitulate the dispute, the NFL locked out its referees in June, following the expiration of their last union contract, reached in 2006. That deprived the 121 referees of per-game paychecks averaging about $9,000 each for (thus far) the first three weeks of regular-season play.

If you decide these men don't deserve your sympathy, it's not hard to find a reason to scorn them — indeed, NFL executives have been happy to lay some out, sub rosa. They've mentioned that the refs are part-timers who are somehow able to pull down an average $150,000 each to work the games. They've noted that the league's generous contract offer would raise that average to more than $200,000 in seven years.

They've pointed out that officiating is a second job for almost all the refs — they're lawyers, investment managers, business executives, coaches and schoolteachers. "We want to treat them fairly," Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL, told me last week. "They're well compensated, and we're offering an increase in total compensation, but their economic demands are unrealistic."

There's a "yes, but" clause to the NFL's position. Although the league offered an overall raise, it has also proposed to add 21 men to the officiating roster, which it says would give it more flexibility to sit refs out of games or sack sub-par officials.

The referees union points out that this could leave each working ref with a smaller share of the pie over the course of a season. That's because game-day pay comes from a lump sum apportioned partially by seniority; the pool was $18.6 million last year, not counting retirement. But because the league isn't proposing to increase the pool specifically to cover 21 more refs, it would have to be spread among 142 members instead of 121. You do the math.

What was overlooked, at least until the replacement refs started working their alchemy, is that officiating in the NFL is no picnic. As my colleague Sam Farmer reported in 2007 after getting a rare opportunity to tail a refereeing crew, "the pressure is intense and the scrutiny unbelievable."

The refs' work was graded every week by league supervisors as obsessively legalistic as insurance company lawyers looking over your hospital claim. One supervisor told Farmer that you could count the number of crews that had received perfect scores for officiating a game on the fingers of one hand.

"It's an incredibly difficult job," agreed Michael McCann, a sports law expert at the Vermont Law School. "You have 22 guys going at full speed and in close contact, and the rulebook is harder than my antitrust law class."

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