Replacement refs gone by Sunday? Labor talks hurried after 'national joke.'

The NFL and its locked-out officials are near a deal, reports suggest. The officiating debacle Monday night appears to have made plain to owner the huge stakes involved for the league.

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (r.) complains to an official during the first half of their NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore Sunday.

When candidates in the heat of a presidential campaign take time to complain about pro football officiating, it is a sign that something is seriously amiss. The National Football League appears to have gotten the message, responding to a game some have called the Monday Night Monstrosity by stepping up labor meetings with locked-out officials. 

New reports suggest that the two sides are nearing a resolution, and that the officials could return as soon as Sunday. Replacement referees had drawn attention to the situation through several miscues, blown calls, and drawn-out games in Week 2, followed by even more in Week 3 – culminating in Monday night's game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, when referees apparently blew a call that directly decided the outcome of the game. 

The magnitude of the mistake, in addition to the fact that it occurred in a prime time game, might have made plain the stakes to the NFL owners.

“They were working toward a resolution before Monday night, but Monday night has accelerated the need to get the deal done fairly quickly,” says David Carter, director of the University of Southern California’s Sports Business Institute. “At this point, fans want to know what’s going to happen, sponsors want to know, the gambling industry is concerned … and fans that have fantasy sports teams want to know what they’re going to be treated fairly and that the integrity of the game is on par with what they’ve always expected.”

The 31 team owners had in essence hoped that fans and players wouldn’t notice that it was fielding Division II and III college referees. Instead, it became the primary story line for a league that is notoriously sensitive to bad publicity. Some players have complained that the game is now “a national joke.”

“It’s true that people are still watching the game and ratings are actually up because of the spectacle, but I don’t think fans will be as interested in watching if they don’t believe games are being credibly officiated by week 10 or 11,” says Michael McCann, a sports law expert at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

The pressure to break the labor impasse has been building since the preseason. Several blown calls in Week 2 added to the urgency. But nothing could have been worse than what happened Monday night, when two replacement refs stood side by side and gave conflicting signals on a game-deciding Hail Mary pass.

While most of the country (and one official) saw an interception by Green Bay Packer M.D. Jennings, the other official saw a touchdown by Seahawk receiver Golden Tate, giving the Seahawks a 14-12 win.

Players, coaches, and even presidential candidates have weighed in. President Obama tweeted that we need to get “our refs back,” while calling Monday night’s play-calling “terrible.” (He later expressed sympathy for the plight of the replacements, who are in a classic no-win situation.)

Vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, a Packers fan, likened the officiating to Obama’s handling of the economy. "It's time to get the real refs!" Ryan said. "You know what, it reminds me of President Obama and the economy. If you can't get it right, it's time to get out.”

The disagreements come down to pay increases, a new pension system, and a desire by the NFL to build more accountability into the system. For example, the NFL wants to create a new pool of 21 officials which it can draw from to replace officials who perform poorly. Officials have countered that one to four officiating crews are inactive each week, and they could be deployed in much the same fashion. They have also agreed to train 21 officials from major college football, grooming them as a sort of officiating minor leagues.

The remaining sticking point, according to ESPN, is money. The referees, who work part time, make about $150,000 a year.

The league is worried about the optics of striking a deal so soon after Monday night – giving the appearance that it has caved in, writes Mike Freeman of CBS Sports. But it seems certain that the league has gotten more than it bargained for through the first three weeks of the season.

“The NFL was reminded that they are such a public enterprise that everything they do is going to be picked apart and dissected by the media and everybody else,” says Mr. Carter at USC. At the same time, he adds, Monday night’s debacle epitiomizes why “they need to get this thing fixed fairly soon, before it begins to have a bigger branding impact on the league. The NFL is lucky that it has such a tremendous amount of fan goodwill that it can get past this.”

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