'Inaccurate Reception' got NFL and refs back to the labor table – and fast
The botched call by replacement refs Monday broke the impasse in the referee labor lockout, signaling that outraged fans, sponsors, Vegas bookies, and fantasy sports players have real clout.
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“No one has questioned the integrity of the NFL – that’s why it’s a $9 [billion] or $10 billion business,” says David Carter, director of the University of Southern California’s Sports Business Institute. “So for the NFL to lack integrity based on the replacement officials quickly became a big problem for them, because people expect perfection and the product to be seamless; and when they have a gaffe like this, it surprises a lot of folks, including those that fund the league.”Skip to next paragraph
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Lots of skeptical fans and cynical sports commentators pointed out that, ultimately, the NFL would take fans for suckers and continue to field the replacements, especially as ratings were up season to season because the stumblebum refs themselves had become a draw.
But McCann of the Vermont Law School disabused that notion, calling that strategy “short-lived at best.”
And it became clear from the sudden speed and intensity of the negotiations to bring back the regular officials that Commissioner Goodell and the owners took the impact of their decision to field replacement officials personally and hard.
“No matter how money-driven fans think Roger Goodell and the owners are, they are human beings … [and] they do have pride in what they do,” writes ESPN columnist Darren Rovell. “They do know just how bad that call and the reaction surrounding it was.”
While the league could not reasonably call out its own replacements on the Monday night call, the deal to bring back the regular officials, in retrospect, became the league’s mea culpa to fans.
The new labor agreement will be sent to the union membership on Friday for approval, but the deal, in essence, is this: The officials, who are part time, will see their pay will go up from $149,000 a year to $205,000 by 2019. In return, the NFL received the option to start hiring full-time, full-year officials next year in order to increase flexibility by bringing more younger officials into a league that has seen the average age of its officials steadily increase.
The fact that the NFL was able to reach a deal so quickly, sports experts say, spoke to some basic lessons learned for the league. One is that lockouts should be reserved for situations when there are fundamental and philosophical differences between two sides, not bickering over amounts of money that pale compared with the league’s annual haul.
But most important, the league set aside its reputation for being ready and prepared in order to score ultimately negligible points in a labor dispute with an officials corps that, while perhaps not well liked, had the respect of fans.
By not locking out the officials until the last moment and hiring lower-division college replacement officials to step in, the NFL, in essence, set a trap for itself and came within a few games of seriously damaging the league’s brand in the process.
“The NFL’s mistake was not better preparing for the lockout,” says McCann.