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Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Will MNF outcome break stalemate?

By Andrew Brandt
ESPN.com

Yes, it happened. Because of the ineptitude of replacement officials, the outcome of an NFL game was changed. The country watched in disbelief as a replacement referee gave the Seahawks a game-winning touchdown on what was a game-sealing interception by the Packers. What many had feared about the use of inexperienced replacements had surfaced. And the tipping point that will bring the real referees back to the field has come -- or has it?

Despite Monday night's debacle, we may be no closer to a deal with the real referees. Two different problems operating on parallel tracks -- the ineptness of the replacements and the stalled negotiation with the real referees -- have not yet intersected in a meaningful way. Although it is logical to believe the negotiation will dramatically change after Monday night, that is to focus on the problem, not the solution.

The replacements, however unprepared, are just pawns in a negotiation, temporary placeholders while we wait for the NFL and the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) to find common ground.

Commissioner's power

Roger Goodell, for better or worse, is the face of the NFL. In dealing with players on the collective bargaining agreement and the bounty suspensions, and now with the referees, he has taken withering criticism. He rightfully does not engage, stoically defending his position with bland platitudes about protecting the integrity and "best interests" of the game.

Roger Goodell
Roger Goodell is catching heat over the officiating situation, but it's his bosses -- the owners -- who are calling the shots.

Although "best interests" allows for great latitude, we would like to believe it means the best interests of owners, players and fans. However, the commissioner is selected and paid by the owners; there is the natural tension between "best interests of the game" and "best interests of the owners." In the case of the NFLRA negotiation and the spectacle of the replacement referees, it appears the latter has priority.

Although Goodell is taking the brunt of criticism for perceived indifference to safety and the integrity of the game at the expense of a business negotiation, these decisions are probably being made by his bosses -- the owners -- not him.

As the dispute escalated this summer, I asked an NFL owner for his take on the disagreement. He remarked, with some disdain, "They think we can't play without them." That sentiment, shared by other owners, is telling.

As much as these owners like to win on the field, they enjoy winning off it just as much. As with the player negotiation a year ago, the owners don't "need" a different kind of deal; they simply "want" a better deal. They believe they can extract concessions because they have the leverage to do so.

With the players, it was about fixing costs. With the referees, it is about changing the culture, denying entitlement and exerting more control. Let's briefly examine the issues holding up a deal as well as possible solutions.

The money

The popular view about the gap here -- about $25-30 million over six or seven years -- is that a $9 billion business can easily spare a few million to resolve this. Another view is that the NFLRA is balking at increases, albeit modest, on salaries already averaging $150,000 for part-time employees. As always, there are two sides to every story.

Proposed solution: The NFL moves toward the requested NFLRA increases in pay, but layers them evenly throughout the six or seven years of the deal.

The pension

The NFL owners perceive the pension -- negotiated by the officials as part of the now-expired 2006 CBA -- as an "entitlement" ripe for change. The NFL points out that many full-time league and team employees do not receive pensions, so why should part-time referees? Owners want to strip the NFLRA of this entitlement: that was then, this is now.

A pension puts the risk on the employer. The NFL's proposed defined contribution plan puts the risk on the employee. This continues to be the blood issue of this negotiation.

Proposed solution: The NFL raises its defined contribution plan (presently between $16,000 and $23,000 a year) and allows for pensions to full-time officials and those without a second income. The NFLRA relents on requesting further pensions.

Full-time officials

The NFL wants seven full-time officials -- one at each officiating position -- to improve the overall quality of the group. Potentially, the number of full-timers could grow.

The NFLRA knows that to be full-time, officials would have to leave their other (full-time) jobs and lose income. The NFL is not going to pay them an amount equal to their present sum of two incomes, nor will it pay what MLB or NBA full-time referees make.

Again, the NFL is trying to make a change in the culture.

Proposed solution: The NFL caps the number of full-time officials and provides year-round physical training and rules seminars throughout the offseason to improve the quality and fitness of its officials group.

Extra crews

The NFL's offer to have three additional crews -- 21 officials -- on "standby" has not been warmly received by the NFLRA. Officials see them as built-in replacement referees, ready to substitute for underperforming first-string referees. The NFL says that it is just trying to deepen its bench and add a layer of accountability.

Proposed solution: The NFL provides the NFLRA extensive and clear criteria for being "sent down." The NFLRA agrees to more accountability in the name of improving the overall level of the product.

Where the players stand

Despite criticisms, profanity-laced tweets and statements from the NFLPA, the players have made no meaningful gestures of support.

They cannot strike and would not even if they could. Article 47, Section 6 of the CBA allows the NFLPA to strike only if "union security" is threatened -- the NFLPA's status as a union, not the health and safety of the players. And although federal law does allow for employees to strike over "abnormally dangerous work conditions," that is a stretch in this scenario.

In hindsight, perhaps during last year's CBA negotiations, while the NFL was providing concessions on health and safety -- that was good business for them -- the NFLPA could have demanded that games not be officiated by replacement referees during the term of their agreement. Lesson learned for the next CBA.

What could the players do for the NFLRA? They could offer financial support, refuse to play in games officiated by these replacements (risking fines and suspensions), or file negligence actions against the league.

Thousands of negligence lawsuits are now circling the NFL regarding concussions. It will be interesting to see if head injuries suffered during these games officiated by replacements generate a new wave of future allegations against the league.

What now?

We have reached the intersection of "best interests of the game" and "best interests of the owners."

NFL owners appear to regard a disputed win, negative media reports and player/coach frustration as acceptable collateral damage to achieve a change in the way the referees operate. They fully expect the NFLRA to make a deal much closer to their terms than the NFLRA's. While the owners wait for that to happen, we endure the much-maligned pawns of their strategy: the replacements.