The NFL officials lockout is a great reminder that whenever someone from the league or a team says it’s all about the fan, he’s full of it.
The NFL’s hard line on holding down future costs of officials is nothing more than a money grab by the league’s owners because they think they can use replacement officials with impunity.
There’s longer, more tedious games, with extended conferences after almost every penalty flag. There’s also a growing sense that the officials have lost control of the games and the players. And that’s not taking into account player safety issues.
The replacement officials haven’t been an epic disaster, but they’ve been more than bad enough to reflect the league’s indifference to its customers, especially those that have to sit through games at the stadium. At least at home you can change the channel during the endless delays.
Let’s also be clear: This is not an argument to open the vault for the locked-out officials. The NFL has major costs of its own, most notably, the huge debt on the new stadiums teams have been and are building around the league. Lines have to be drawn.
But it also bears remembering that taxpayers are chipping in on most of those projects and the road infrastructure around them.
The other problem is where the league is drawing the line. In this negotiation, the major sticking point appears to be retirement benefits. The NFL wants to convert the officials’ pension program into a 401k and thereby reduce the league’s pension costs by 60 percent. The officials’ union this week finally offered that its current work force be grandfathered in and continue with the previous pension system, but that new officials will be in the 401k plan.
But there’s still no deal.
Don’t go for the NFL’s red herrings: The refs aren’t full-time employees, so why should they get full-time benefits? And, many other companies have moved to the 401(k) programs, so why shouldn’t officials’ retirements go that route as well?
Those arguments are distractions trying to appeal to many of us who have seen our benefits decline over the last decade.
First, NFL officials are part-time in name, but get serious. The NFL isn’t some Podunk league. These are professionals under intense scrutiny.
Second, and more to the point, the NFL isn’t an industry or business struggling for its life. It’s spectacularly successful and will make about $9 billion in revenue this year. In 2011 it signed new TV contracts through 2022 that were a 60 percent increase in revenue from the previous deal. This isn’t the NBA or NHL, let alone, say, the declining newspaper industry. Holding down costs is one thing; blatantly reducing the quality of a wildly popular product by penny pinching is another.
The league has more than made its point, it’s shown who has the power in this negotiation. But really, how can there not have been a reasonable compromise by now?
“This is affecting the integrity of the game,” said a prominent front-office executive for an NFL team this week. “That (hard line by the owners) surprises me a little bit.”
Now, let’s not misassign responsibility here. Blame doesn’t lie with the replacement officials; they don’t have the training to handle NFL games. And it’s not the fault of commissioner Roger Goodell. He’s the face of the league, but he works for the owners, not the other way around.
It’s a given that the NFL’s hard line is being driven by Goodell’s bosses, very likely a small group of owners.
Dallas owner Jerry Jones has been front and center defending the replacement officials from the start. He also built a $1.2 billion stadium that in the Dallas area is called “Jerry’s World,” of which he’s paying for a little more than $700 million. And he’s the guy responsible for the over-sold seating debacle when the Packers played in the Super Bowl there two seasons ago. You can bet he’s leading the charge to save every cent here.
So how adverse have the replacements been for the NFL experience going into the third weekend of the regular season?
For starters, ProFootballTalk.com reported that according to grading by the league office, the replacements made an average of more than 30 mistakes a game over the first regular-season weekend; the regular officials average in the single digits. And that was on a weekend in which the replacements received relatively good reviews.
Though the league’s grades for last weekend weren’t reported, things surely looked much worse. The Monday night game, Atlanta vs. Denver, was a disaster. The first quarter lasted an hour and the game 3 hours, 27 minutes. There was a 6-minute delay when officials tried to figure out what happened on a fumble, and players came off the bench to join wrestling for the ball. And Broncos coach John Fox intimidated one official into picking up his flag after apparently getting hit with an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
Watching other games and highlights — I saw decent portions of Baltimore vs. Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh vs. the New York Jets — there was more chaos, more frustration-fueled pushing and shoving after the whistle, more of a sense of the game being out of the officials’ control.
What players need as much as anything is relative consistency on what they can and can’t do. Though each officiating crew has its tendencies — the Packers provide the players a scouting report on each week’s crew — the league has done a good job of establishing over the years a general sense of what’s allowed and what isn’t.
Talking informally with players in the Packers’ locker room, that consistency is gone with the replacements. Some are excessively officious, some won’t call almost anything.
The biggest problem has been the officiating in the secondary. Multiple players said the officials are allowing defensive backs to make contact down field and when the ball is in the air — college football doesn’t have the illegal contact rule for defensive backs outside the five-yard zone from the line of scrimmage. But they’re aggressively calling offensive pass interference when receivers push off with the ball in the air.
The linemen said there’s always a lot of unpenalized holding regardless of who’s officiating, though the replacements are allowing defensive holding on line stunts that the regular officials usually call. Also, the replacements are calling holding away from the point of attack on occasions where the regular officials would have warned not to do it again.
Players will do whatever they can get away with, so it’s creating an environment of escalating retaliation.
“Guys are getting frustrated,” one player said.
Maybe all it will take to get it resolved is for the replacement refs to cost Jones’ team a game.
But barring that, the question is whether NFL owners are asking for trouble by taking this hard line. One of these weeks, there’s going to be a brawl that wouldn’t have happened with regular refs. And who knows how the replacements are affecting the outcome of games?
Then again, maybe the owners are right that the NFL-viewing public doesn’t care about the officiating enough to affect business. As long as the stadiums are full and the ratings high, they’re right. But don’t let them ever tell you the game’s all about you.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.