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Opinion

NFL replacement referees stir debate

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September 27, 2012

There is one thing that Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers fans can agree on: the replacement referees have made this NFL season hard to watch. While the deal between the NFL and the referees was made in time to save the season, it is worth noting what got us into this mess in the first place.

With time expiring in the Monday night matchup, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson launched a “Hail Mary” that was caught in the end zone. The officiating crew ruled it a catch by Seattle receiver Golden Tate, even though Tate was grabbing for the ball with the Packers’ M.D. Jennings, who arguably had control. This is something that even the most loyal Vikings fan would agree with. After almost 10 minutes of review, officials affirmed the call on the fi eld and the Seahawks escaped with a 14-12 win over the Packers.

The referees had been locked out since early June, when negotiations over a new contract between the NFL Referees Association and the NFL broke down. Although there were many issues at play, the main issue, of course is money. The referees felt that the raise offered to them by the NFL (a 5-11 percent raise) was too much lower than the raises they received back in 2006, the last time the two sides renegotiated.

They claimed that, despite record revenues for the NFL, the NFL wanted to cut costs by underpaying their officials. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello countered by asking if the officials have gotten the same raise from their other jobs since 2006. (NFL offi cials are different than other major league sports as they are not hired full-time).

The NFL, despite being the most successful and most profi table sports league in the United States, pays their referees far less than any of the rest. ESPN reported that the average starting salary for a fi rst year NFL offi cial is $78,000 – certainly a great deal for a part time job. But compare that to the starting salary for, say, an MLB umpire: $120,000 a year. That’s about as much as a 10-year NFL veteran referee makes. NBA and NHL refs similarly make six fi gure salaries from the start. Bryan Knowles of bestsportsblog.com argues that they offi ciate dozens, if not hundreds, of games a year, while the NFL ref will top out at about 20 – a fair point.

The referees’ collective bargaining agreement expired at the end of last season, and both sides had been in talks since last October. And since no deal was made, the NFL announced that they would begin using replacement offi cials until a deal was reached.

These replacements, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, include “elite” retired college offi cials, offi cials from the smaller, non-BCS conferences, and even Arena League referees.

After Monday’s game, (and the previous weeks’ games as well) it is clear that these replacement offi cials are not up to the standard of regular NFL refs. Monday’s game may have been the tipping point for fans, players and owners to say enough is enough. And sure enough, less than a week later, a deal has been reached.

“Don’t ask me a question about the offi cials,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. “I’ve never seen anything like that in all my years in football.”

The NFL Player Association even sent a letter to the league on Sunday urging the return of the unionized referees. The NFL had the most at stake with the integrity and respect for the game being lost due to the blown calls by the replacement refs.

That gave the regular refs a huge bargaining tool since their reputation was not at stake. And since they were protected by the union, they were not missing out on huge benefi ts.

“As players, we see this game as more than the ‘product’ you reference at times,” the players union wrote. “You cannot simply switch to a group of cheaper offi cials and fulfi ll your legal, moral, and duty obligations to us and our fans. You need to end the lockout and bring back the offi cials immediately,” the letter stated.

I do not envy the job of an NFL referee. It’s an incredibly stressful situation, with split second decisions needing to be made every play. A single mistake gets shown on slow motion replay and on SportsCenter for days, over and over again. These referees have made thousands, if not millions, of correct calls, but we always remember the bad ones.

While I am in complete agreement that the call in Monday’s game was wrong, we cannot blame the outcome of games on one bad call. The Packers had plenty of opportunities to score before the fi nal seconds and could not capitalize.

However, it is an accumulation of the bad calls from the entire season from every game that has brought this issue to the forefront. Bad calls will happen, even with the regular offi cials, but, giving two extra timeouts to San Francisco against Minnesota and the “touch-ception” by Tate can not be explained by a split-second decision that could go either way, these were the result of inexperience by the replacement referees.

While the call to end the lock-out was heightened by the Packers/Seahawks game, I believe that no matter what happens, the NFL’s machine will keep rolling along as the most watched and most beloved professional sport in the U.S. and the Packers and Vikings fans can go back to hating each other once again.

Ashley Goettl is an alumna of UW-River Falls. She was editor of the Student Voice from fall semester 2011 to spring semester 2013.