The NFL Referee Lockout: A Story Of Greed And Blame

Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The NFL replacement referees have taken over headlines around the nation as the league takes a PR beating for blown calls and purported greed. Even though the lockout is now over, let's take a quick look at the key issues that drove the madness.

Author's Note: The vast majority of this post was written prior to the release of the fact that the NFL and NFLRA have resolved the majority of their issues, but I was on a business trip and didn't get a chance to post it. Because I think the line of thinking is still valid, and because I'm too lazy to rewrite the whole thing, I've decided to post it anyway. At worst, you can print it out and take a picture of yourself holding it as a way to recreate your own "Dewey Defeats Truman" moment (h/t to Tim for that joke).

Nothing drives me more insane than people getting upset with me because of something I didn't do.

It happens to me all the time, and I'm definitely not alone in this situation. You know what I'm talking about: When a spouse/coworker/friend/acquaintance is having a rough day, and they take it out on you. I'm not even saying that I've never done it, though I will say that I strongly try to avoid it.

Still, it is infuriating.

Which is why, when I read the Mount Everest of hate-press aimed at the replacement officials and at Roger Goodell, my first instinct is to wonder who's really to blame for all this mess.

Don't get me wrong. I have no problem assigning blame at the responsible parties, but, as I mentioned above, I'd prefer it be aimed in the appropriate direction. So I want to take a moment to make sure we all understand what's really going on with this lockout. I want you all to be perfectly trained hate cobras, spitting your vitriol with deadly accuracy.

So, let's make sure that we understand what really happened.

As you're likely aware from the sheer volume of articles out there, the heart of the lockout revolved around four main issues.

While they've been discussed ad nauseum in these articles, let's review them quickly.

  1. Compensation: When it's not about the money, it's about the money. Under the "old" plan, NFL referees shared an $18M salary pool. This means that, on average, referees earned $150,000 a year. Not bad for part time work! The NFL has offered to add a million dollars to the pool, which would raise the average salary to $189,000 per year. (Note: These figures are no longer valid, so see below for actual numbers from the agreement.) If this were the only issue on the table, we'd probably already be back to cursing the regular officials, but because of the other issues listed below, we're stuck with cursing the replacement refs.
  2. Pension vs. 401K: The league wants to replace the officials' pension fund with a 401K. For the most part, this doesn't seem too absurd. If you're reading this and have some sort of company provided retirement plan, I'd bet that it's far more likely that you have a 401K than a pension. Pensions, while nice, just aren't done much anymore. Still, I can kind of understand the NFLRA's position that they are having something certain taken away from them with no additional compensation.
  3. More officials: In yesterday's NFL, there were 17 officiating crews employed by the NFL -- one for each game and then an extra. The NFL is proposing to raise this to 20 crews, with the idea being that the "spare" refs would replace officials with poor on-field performance and would be a pool for grooming future officials. The NFLRA is balking at this because they see it as a threat to jobs and a reduction in pay. See, officials get paid by the game, so if games are distributed among more officials, each guy gets a smaller share of the pie. Personally, I love this idea. While the replacement officials are making us realize how tough the job really is, let's not pretend that the regular officials were knocking out of the park. Tying their future job availability to current performance sounds like a great way to enforce performance accountability.
  4. Full time: Everybody knows that the referees are part time employees with regular full time jobs. Well, the NFL wants to hire seven full time refs (one for each position) at the same pay, with the idea being that these officials would be responsible to train, scout, etc. The NFLRA is upset because these seven officials are now losing out the pay that they would normally receive from their day job. Again, I love the idea because it should result in improved officiating.

So now that we understand the underlying issues behind the lockout, what does it all mean?

Simply put, it means that there's a lot of blame to go around. The blame game is not as black and white as some might have you believe. So, if you hear someone say, "Goodell's a jerk and should pay the officials to get the game going again," know that you're listening to someone who hasn't really thought through the issues.

If we look at each stakeholder in turn, we'll find that they all share part of the blame for the current situation.

Roger Goodell: Roger Goodell is receiving the blunt of the blame for the current situation, and it's not surprising. He's the face of the evil-corporation-side of the NFL, and he's the one physically saying "no" to the NFLRA's demands. He definitely deserves his share of the blame, but he doesn't deserve 100% of it. Remember that Goodell represents the NFL owners, and he doesn't have the authority to just say, "Ok, let's give up some cash and end this thing." He's a puppet -- an extremely well paid puppet, but still a puppet. That may be taking it too far. He definitely has the ability to influence the thinking of the owners, and he seems to be the leading proponent of items 3 and 4 above, so maybe he really is looking out for the long term improvements and sustainability of refereeing. Regardless, though, he doesn't have the authority to trump the owners. Still, taking the hate is part of the job description, so he deserves his share. Furthermore, where he legitimately deserves a lot of blame is in the well-discussed hypocrisy regarding player safety and the farce that is replacement officiating. Even more so, Goodell deserves full blame for the lack of background checks on these officials, resulting in a Saints fan being assigned a Saints game and this.

NFL Owners: Based on the above, much of the hate aimed at Goodell should really be directed at the owners themselves -- those 32 rich guys who really drive the direction of the league. They're the ones unwilling to make the necessary concessions to end the lockout (and I'm not even arguing that they should just roll over and make those concessions -- see the section on referees below -- but they are in fact unwilling). I don't know how united the owners are, and I don't know how willing they are to move on any of the above items, but to date, the only information that we have is that the owners as a group are unwilling to budge on concessions that seem to total $3M. Considering they run a $9.3 billion dollar (and growing) industry, I have to question the business logic of holding such a tight line on an issue that equates to 0.03% of total revenues.

Referees: With all that said, let's not pretend that the referees themselves are a bunch of innocent bystanders, struggling to feed their families. Setting everything aside, I don't think anyone can argue that the NFL has not been good to the officials. Hold on, that may be an incredible understatement. The NFL has paid referees an average of $150,000 a year for a super prestigious part time job. Sure there are downsides to it -- fan hatred, risk of injury, loss of family time, and the fact that, as far as part time jobs go, this one is pretty demanding -- but the lack of officials running away from the NFL suggests that it is, in fact, pretty cushy. Look at the four issues above. On #1, the league has already offered more money. On #2, the NFLRA wants to hold tight and not give up anything. On #3 and #4, the league gains no financial benefit whatsoever (yes, they may cost individual referees a bit, but I don't think the league should be responsible for ensuring that poor performing officials feel no retribution or that officials are compensated for non-NFL related work), so they're simply a matter of referees trying to protect the overall cushiness of their position and not wanting to give anything up. If you've ever tried to argue with a two year old, this may sound familiar. The public backlash against the league, and decidedly NOT against the NFLRA, is a bit misguided and these guys deserve their share of the blame.

Replacement Officials: I actually have a bit of a hard time putting too much blame on these guys. They've been put in a no-win situation where their actions are critiqued possibly more than the regular officials ever were. Still, if you take a job and then totally suck at it, you have to take responsibility for it.

Players and coaches: Wait, aren't they the victims here? For the most part, yes; the players and coaches are the ones suffering the wrath of the poor officials. But if we're going to call out Goodell and the NFL for their hypocrisy regarding player safety and replacement refs, then we need to call out the players as well. What I mean by that is that the players and coaches are the ones trying to game the system, trying to intimidate the referees, and taking cheap shots after the whistle. Just because the regular officials aren't there doesn't absolve the players and coaches from their responsibility to the integrity of the game (that same integrity that they love to call the league out on). If you're of the opinion that the players and coaches can't be blamed for trying to do whatever they can to win the game, then fine, but in that case, the players at least lose their right to complain about it later. You can't act the way the players and coaches have acted during the game, and then turn around in a post-game conference and complain about the lack of institutional control. If a prison locks out the prison guards and the prisoners riot, nobody would care when if the prisoners came out later and complained about the fact that they got hurt. Simply put, if the players and coaches are complaining about bad calls, I consider it legit, but when they start complaining about control, player safety, and the like, I take it with an enormous grain of salt.

Fans: Hold on now, the fans really are the innocent victims. Yes, we are. As far as suffering, we the fans are the ones (again) holding the short end of the stick here. The vast majority of us are not billionaire owners, millionaire players, or even really, really well-off officials. Most of us work hard to provide for ourselves and our families and look at football to provide us with a break from otherwise difficult lives. I've heard suggestions that fans should stop watching and hit the owners where it hurts, but that's not remotely realistic. Fans are not unionized and don't have representatives, so there's no opportunity to organize in the same manner as the league, the players, or the officials. So the fans are the ones stuck with an inferior product without a means of retribution. Still, the one reason that I put the fans here is that if you're going to be upset, I ask that you at least understand the situation and direct your anger accordingly. Hopefully this post helps you along that path.

So what does this all mean? Simply put, I'm just trying to point to the fact that there is more than one villain in this ordeal This is not just a matter of Roger Goodell not being willing to make a deal. This is really about a bunch of different factions looking out for their own interests and losing sight of the greater good. This is about them losing sight of the fact that they all had to work together to create the product that ultimately provides them the riches and prestige that they treasure so much.

Seeing as the lockout is now over, let's at least hope that they didn't just agree for the sake of agreeing, where we'll have to revisit this embarrassment again in a few years. Hopefully they really did come to an agreement, and, along with the CBA between the NFL and NFLPA last year, we're entering a long, uninterrupted period of shared prosperity.

Now about those concussions....

Follow up: Again, the vast majority of this piece was written prior to the agreement, but now that it's out, let's quickly look at what happened with the four items above.

  1. Compensation: Looks like the league gave up a bit more, and the compensation will be an average of $149,000 a year in 2011, rising to $173,000 in 2013, and then to $205,000 by 2019. That's a 16% raise by next year and then an additional 18% by 2019. The officials have to be happy with that, as it is far more than the average raise on a percentage basis.
  2. Pension: The current officials will keep their pensions through the 2016 season or until they reach 20 years of service. At that point it will be frozen, and future retirement benefits will be run through a 401K system. New officials will go through the 401K system. I was in a company recently that axed the pension plan and, unless you had at least five years of service, you just lost it entirely. I had two.
  3. More Officials: It seems that the league has won the right to hire more officials, but I was unable to find anything conclusive as to whether or not they got their 20. Again, I love this idea.
  4. Full Time: The league won the right to hire some full time, year-round officials, though the exact number has not been revealed.

Overall, it seems that the league gave ground with respect to the finances, but the NFLRA gave ground on protection of the current hiring system. It seems like both sides came out pretty well, but the fact that it came to this point and the behavior of all involved during the lockout makes the points in this post still valid, if a bit dated.

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