Why did this deal take so long?
In the end, both the league and the officials offered compromises
Our national nightmare of underprepared and overabused replacement referees is over. The NFL's second lockout in two years -- first the players, then the referees -- has ended. The league's labor forces are secure for 10 and eight years, respectively.
The lengths of these deals are not designed simply to avoid more labor pain anytime soon. They provide stability to fans, sponsors and TV networks. They also provide cost certainty to owners and prospective owners, raising the already enormous values of teams.
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I was wrong to believe that the fiasco Monday night in Seattle would not be a tipping point for the NFL to make a deal, although it was more a "tipping over" point. It was the final exhibit in a mountain of evidence against the replacement referees. The gaffes suggested that the NFL was willing to sacrifice integrity and public confidence to forge its desired business deal.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose tenure has been defined by upholding the league's reputation as one of integrity, had to act.
Further, the "touchception" in Seattle resonated at a staggering level. It became more than a football story. It led the morning and evening news and infiltrated election coverage. Both President Barack Obama and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan -- a Packers fan -- weighed in. It made casual fans -- whom the NFL covets -- wonder why the NFL was using third-rate referees. It was like Super Bowl coverage, and it was for all of the wrong reasons.
Ironically, the replacement referees were hired to give the NFL leverage by showing that the game could go on without the regular referees, and they did the opposite. The errors of the substandard replacements, many on a national stage, ended up swinging leverage to the referees.
There were wins for each side in this deal, but they are sensible and expected, begging the question of why it took so long. Beyond the NFL's allowances on the pension issue, the deal appears to be very close to what was being discussed all along.
The resolution of the pension issue -- the "blood issue" -- in this negotiation swings toward the referees in the near term, but there is some long-term sacrifice. The pension continues for current officials through 2016 before it is frozen. The NFL's preferred defined contribution plan (401k) will be in effect for new officials and all officials -- excluding those with 20 or more years of service -- after 2016.
The referees, many of whom are older and have planned on a pension, were able to salvage their primary concern. This is a concession that the NFL was long unwilling to make. However, when this collective bargaining agreement expires, a pension benefit will be eliminated and may never return. This is a short-term win for the officials, but a long-term win for the NFL.
Salaries will rise from an average of about $150,000 to more than $200,000 through the eight years of the deal.
These figures are not so different from where the negotiation started. A $50,000 increase over eight years is relatively nominal. However, unlike most negotiations, money was not the primary concern of this deal. Most referees have other incomes, and they pushed the pension issue harder than salaries.
Full-time vs. part-time
The NFL "will have the option of hiring a number of officials on a full-time basis to work year-round, including on the field," according to the agreement. The referees were resistant to full-time hires, wanting to keep two incomes, but compromised here.
The NFL wanted to change the culture of the officials and have a group dedicated to the craft year-round. It is unclear, however, how many referees will be made full-time and whether that number will grow.
Negotiations are about business but usually contain a personal element. The referees fought the NFL's insistence of three additional "backup" crews that could threaten their job security and leave them subject to random evaluation. The NFL wanted to strengthen its bench and develop a rising group of officials.
The NFL now has "the option to retain additional officials, the number of which to be determined by the NFL," according to the agreement. The league appears to have accomplished its objective. And although these crews are truly practice squads that exist outside of the officials' union base, with a separate pot of money, they may be assigned to work NFL games, perhaps at the expense of the existing officials.
Time will tell on these additional crews, but it appears the NFL has added a layer of accountability to officiating.
Why so long
My overwhelming impression in reading the particulars of the agreement is that this was about where the deal should have landed weeks ago. It took the spectacle of Monday night -- replayed thousands of times -- or the culmination of errors by the replacements to reach an agreement that could have happened without the short-term blow to the league's integrity.
It will be interesting to see how long the heroes' welcome to the real referees -- rushed back to avoid another weekend of the replacements -- can endure. The "bring back the replacements!" taunts are sure to come.
I do think Goodell needs to address the short-term integrity issue. Without that, public confidence in the league will suffer. The NFL suffered a glancing blow to its integrity, but it can and will get up off the canvas. It is too strong not to. But the commissioner needs to be open and honest with his customers about a month of officiating he very much would like to forget.
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