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After Botched Call in Packers-Seahawks Game, Owners and Pro Referees Make Deal

September 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Regular pro referees are back on the football field, after owners and the NFL Referees Association ended a lockout over referee pensions. Jeff Brown talks to NPR's Mike Pesca about the deal which was precipitated by a replacement ref's botched call that costing the Green Bay Packers a win against the Seattle Seahawks.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the NFL and its referees end a much-maligned lockout.

MIKE TIRICO, ESPN announcer: The game’s final play is a Wilson loft to the end zone, which is fought for by Tate with Jennings simultaneous. Who has it? Who do they give it to? Touchdown!


JEFFREY BROWN: It may be the first labor dispute resolved by a touchdown, or what most fans and even one referee saw as an interception.

NFL owners and the league’s 121 official referees reached a new deal late last night, just two days after a national uproar following Monday night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks.

REFEREE: The call on the field stands. Touchdown.


REFEREE: The game is over.

MIKE TIRICO: Seahawks win in the most bizarre finish you will ever see!

JEFFREY BROWN: The blown call capped weeks of growing frustration over what many saw as the inconsistency and even incompetence of replacement refs.

ANNOUNCER: That comes out. That is definitely one that they should challenge.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several NFL coaches, including Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, were fined for blasts at and behavior towards the temporary referees.

Today, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to fans on a phone call. In a press conference later, he claimed a resolution to the dispute and a new eight-year contract had been close even before the Monday night incident.

ROGER GOODELL, National Football League commissioner: It just helped push us to point where we got the agreement that we really needed to get and kept us in there.

And I think there was a real pressure I think for everyone to get the officials back on the field this weekend. I think everybody wanted — the officials wanted to get back on. And I believe we would have reached an agreement this week regardless.

JEFFREY BROWN: The deal must still be ratified, but the regular officiating crews return to work tonight for a game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.

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JEFFREY BROWN: More now with Mike Pesca of NPR, who’s been covering this story, and joins me from New York.

Well, Mike, this was obviously not your usual labor struggle. How much did the public outcry really force the issue in the end?

MIKE PESCA, NPR: Well, we just heard Goodell saying it didn’t, but it had to have. It had to have provided leverage.

And here’s why I think it worked or why that touchdown/interception was a major factor. It provided a cost to the whole discussion, because, throughout it, the — we blamed Roger Goodell or football fans blamed Roger Goodell, but it was the owners, the owners pushing Roger Goodell not to settle with the officials.

And they could always claim, well, why do we have to settle with officials? They don’t affect the bottom line. No one watches the game to watch a referee, they say.

And maybe it’s true. When there’s a lockout or a labor strike with a factory, you could always do the math and figure out how much it’s costing you.

So, in this case, the owners maybe didn’t have a cost. But what that touchdown did, what all the bad calls did, and that touchdown representing them, it provided a cost. It might not be tangible, but I think it was psychological and I think it got the owners to say this is causing much more embarrassment than it’s worth.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, as to the dispute itself, I mean, the labor dispute, to the extent anybody was paying attention to that, tell us a little bit about the outcome, about the contract dispute.

MIKE PESCA: First, before you even know about the outcome, you have to know all along they weren’t that far apart, just a few million dollars.

It’s a lot to real people. But to the $9.5-billion-in-revenue NFL, it’s really not.

So the main thing that the officials got was a pension, rather than a 401(k), at least for the next four years. So, most of the 121 officials will be getting a pension.

Then they will gradually phase to a 401(k). They also get a raise. Officials make on average about $149,000 this year. That is going to be raised to $173,000 next year.

By 2016, they will be making over $200,000. This is a part-time job. It’s a well-paid job. They will be getting a pension for some time to come. Most people say that the officials got most of what they wanted.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Mike, if you say that this is about a relatively small amount of money in a huge moneymaking sport and entertainment, why did this become to where the owners wanted to draw the line? Why this fight?

MIKE PESCA: A few reasons.

One, the owners wanted to show they were strong for the next time when they negotiate with the players. That’s real money, real money to them.

Two, some people say these owners, they’re used to getting what they want, they don’t want to be pushed around by why what they see as low-level employees. That’s one way of looking at it.

Another way is most of them are really rich individuals because they know that you don’t give away any money in negotiations. So while all the fans were saying, settle, settle, it’s really easy to advise people, yes, spend $5 million to $6 million more a year than you wanted to.

So, it was so one of those fights that was perhaps symbolic. And the owners didn’t think it would hurt the product as much as it clearly did.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, games go on and the refs are back. Do we go back to blaming the real refs for perceived bad calls, or do they get a honeymoon now, at least for a little while?

MIKE PESCA: Two plays, I think.


MIKE PESCA: Kickoff and then the first down. Yes, maybe.


MIKE PESCA: No, I think that you blame the refs if you see a call and the guy’s foot was out and the ref calls it in. That’s human nature. It’s part of the game.

But maybe people will appreciate how good the refs are at administering the game. The games will become a little shorter, a little tighter.

When those refs open up their microphone and speak to the camera, they will be loquacious, instead of fumbling and stuttering for words and figuring out who to call the penalty on.

We never thought about those things before as football fans. Now it will just be like a really good show. The NFL is premier entertainment again.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and, Mike, real briefly, because there’s another sport in a labor dispute, hockey, and that’s this one between owners and players today. Today, the league canceled its entire preseason schedule.

What’s the state of play there?

MIKE PESCA: Yes, and I think it’s plausible that they will miss a few games. Hockey missed a whole season in 2004/2005.

It’s very much about money. Right now, players make about 57 percent of the entire revenue pool.

Hockey itself generates about $3.3 billion. And owners would like players to make something like 46 percent. Players say actually they want us to make 43 percent, simply switching the percentages.

There are a lot of issues. Players are even arguing about how they get fined, how they get penalized. There are very rich teams in hockey, like the Toronto Maple Leafs, and very, very poor teams. There are more issues with this hockey dispute than there are in any other sport that I can remember.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mike Pesca of NPR, thanks again.

MIKE PESCA: You’re welcome.