Commentary

Regular NFL officials bear blame, too

League is taking brunt of criticism, but both sides in this labor dispute are dug in

Originally Published: September 25, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

Do you have a pension?

It's a simple question for which many Americans have a simple answer: not anymore. In this job market, you're lucky to get a halfway decent paycheck, never mind the details of pensions or health insurance. The buzzwords of today are furlough and salary freeze and layoffs. Pensions? Those are things of the past.

The National Football League has come under rampant and warranted criticism for allowing its $9 billion industry to be officiated by under-qualified referees. It has become a joke that a league supposedly so concerned about player safety and the integrity of its game has allowed 48 regular-season games to be officiated by people who have no experience doing so.

Their mistakes are well documented, and now a game has been decided on a blown call by the replacement refs. It is an embarrassment for the league and its owners.

[+] EnlargeMike McCarthy
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenHow did the NFL get to this sad state of affairs? League officials and locked-out referees have all played a role.

But this also has become an embarrassment to the 120 regular officials who have escaped this mess relatively free of blame. They are a party to this dispute. They are locked out, yes, but they have held strong on their demand for the continuation of a pension plan when many of the league's full-time employees and team employees already have converted to a 401(k) retirement plan.

It is unrealistic for them to expect the NFL to continue a benefit for part-time employees that it no longer provides for many full-time employees. Sure, you can say the league -- and really, it is the 31 team owners and the Packers conglomeration -- is being greedy, but so, too, are the referees.

They already average a $150,000 annual salary for their officiating jobs while having other careers. Being an NFL ref is not a bad gig. The league has offered to fly them to and from games in first class. It has offered reasonable pay increases.

There are other things the officials reportedly want. The league wants to create a bench of three additional crews -- 21 additional officials -- who could replace officials who under-perform. The officials naturally don't want that.

But the major sticking point -- the "blood issue," as ESPN.com NFL business columnist Andrew Brandt put it -- is the pension. The officials need to do what so many other employees of the league and its 32 teams have done, and let this one go.

The game is suffering. Bad publicity is one thing. But after three full weeks of this nonsense, the game has changed. It has become more chippy. Players are pushing the rules. They are frustrated. Coaches are frustrated. The replacement officials get little respect, and for good reason. The replacements don't seem well-versed in the rulebook. They've been hesitant to make calls and appear too easily influenced.

Each week, the frustration has escalated, and it is only going to get worse. Now, there has been an embarrassment on national television that cost the Packers a game. What's next? A massive brawl between opposing teams? Punches thrown? Mass ejections? It's bad enough that New England coach Bill Belichick grabbed at an official at the end of the Patriots' loss at Baltimore on Sunday, and that Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan went after another in a hallway after the Redskins' loss to Cincinnati. That could look tame by the time this mess is resolved.

The league has taken a huge public relations hit, but fans keep filling stadiums and TV ratings continue to grow. The NFL is a machine that will not back down because the data available proves it doesn't have to. Fans will flip on their televisions on Thursday night and watch the NFL's network presentation of the Ravens-Browns game, which -- if the past three weeks are any indication -- should take about four hours to complete with outrageous calls and a disrupted flow.

The NFL and the owners aren't going to budge on this. They have absorbed the lion's share of the blame on this one, and deservedly so. But the regular officials need to be held accountable, too. They need to accept responsibility for their role in this debacle. They can come back, if they can find a reasonable middle ground.

Do you have a pension? I don't know many people who still do.

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