One year after the NFL locked out its players, it has locked out its referees. In the interim the NFL has hired replacement refs, who have been atrocious, to put it kindly.
Why is the lockout happening and how has it affected games and the league? Here's what you should know.
1. The Lockout is About Retirement Benefits
The issue that is keeping the lockout going and keeping the sides involved apart is the referee retirement plans. The refs are currently on a pension plan. The NFL wants to transition them to a 401(k) plan.
At first blush, this may seem like the league is in the right. After all, most professions have long since transitioned to 401(k)s, as have most NFL employees. However, the referees argue that most transitions to 401(k)s happen because of unsure profit margins and the NFL has seen record profits year after year after year. Indeed, it makes sense to ask workers to take a little less in down years, but asking workers (who are clearly vital to the quality of the product - see below) to give up retirement benefits when the NFL netted $9 billion in profit last year and the average team is worth $1.1 billion smacks of greed.
The referee union argues that its members have planned their entire retirements around their pensions and to suddenly change what people working for the league for decades have built their lives on when the league is bringing in billions in profit and growing every single year isn't fair. The referees have offered to accept the 401(k) plan on the condition that the currently employed refs get to keep the pensions they've been promised since they were first hired by the NFL. A deal, the league rejected.
2. There Are Three Other Disagreements
There are three other areas of disagreement, but common ground would likely be found on all three if not for the pension issue. The referees would like to see a larger salary increase than what the league is offering, the league would like to hire more officiating crews, and the league would like to hire seven officials full-time.
The first one is pretty simple. We all understand arguments over money. And the league and the union aren't that far apart on the issue. It could likely be solved rather easily.
The other two issues concern referees' job security and pay. The NFL wants more crews so it can more easily train new referees and more easily fire ones that they believe are under-performing. Refereed obviously see this as a threat to their careers. And, because the referees get paid in a pool and divide the money up among themselves rather than having individual salaries, they worry that this would hurt their pay.
Currently refs work for the NFL part-time. Many have second jobs. Referees don't want to give up this extra income that working full-time for the NFL would mean.
Of course, the obvious solution to all three of these is for the NFL to agree to cough up more money for the refs in return for the refs agreeing to more crews and full-time employment. Regardless, there's plenty of room for compromise on both sides. And the officials likely wouldn't object to the extra officiating crews and full-time employment if they were offered assurances about their job security and level of pay.
3. Replacement Refs Are Badly Botching Calls
Just last night the replacement refs made a bad call that determined the outcome of the game. On Monday Night Football, the replacement refs gave the Seattle Seahawks a win over the Green Bay Packers when they ruled that a last second Hail Mary by the Seahawks was a touchdown even though it was clearly an interception. A New Jersey state senator even wants to outlaw the use of replacement refs in the state.
But the problem is larger than one blown call. Nearly every game has seen some truly atrocious blunders by the replacement refs to the point that they don't seem to understand the rules.
One of the simplest and largest problems from the replacement refs is that they're interrupting the flow of the game. Every time they need to pause and confer on a call, something that seems to be happening regularly with these refs, it slows down the game and interrupts any rhythm an offense or defense might be getting itself into. Every time a ref screws up a call that leads to bickering with coaches and players, it kills the momentum of the game.
4. Replacement Refs Are Benefiting Home Teams
It is hard to stand up to 70,000+ people who hate your guts and are screaming bloody murder at you. In fact, it's one of the hardest parts of a referee's job and why they deserve appropriate compensation. The replacement refs are not faring so well in this area either. In the first two weeks home teams were 19-11-2 against the spread, and home underdogs are 8-3. Home teams went 14-2 in week 2, which is the most home wins in a single week since the league expanded in 2002.
5. Coaches Are Acting Out
During week 2, Denver Broncos coaches John Fox and Jack Del Rio verbally abused the replacement refs. Fox was fined $30,000 and Del Rio was fined $25,000 for their outbursts. After these attacks, the NFL sent out a warning to all 32 teams, telling coaches to respect the refs. Then in week 3, Kyle Shanahan of the Washington Redskins chased the refs into the locker room to yell and curse at them and Bill Belichick grabbed a ref in outrage.
6. Players Are Getting Hurt
Defenses have gotten more violent and more aggressive. Players know they can get away with more under the replacements refs. In the Steelers-Raiders game a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit put Raiders receiver Darius Heyward-Bey on a stretcher being taken to a hospital without a single flag being blown. And that wasn't the only one in that single game. Another helmet-to-helmet hit cause Texans QB Matt Schaub to lose part of his ear and not a single flag was thrown.
This lockout is proof that all the NFL's talk about caring about player safety is nothing more than PR damage-control. This was a predictable outcome from the referee lockout and one that could be the most damaging. After a few years of a slow drip of studies and news stories about the dangers of concussions and getting hit in the head repeatedly, something that threatens over the long-term to eventually derail to the entire NFL, the NFL is sacrificing its players' health to save what is to them pennies on the dollar.
7. It's Affecting Vegas Betting Lines
The NFL is more tied to gambling than any other sport in America. Office pools send out pick 'em sheets every week with the lines printed on it. Talking about football is the only time people casually use the term "against the spread." So, the horror show that the replacement refs have unleashed upon the NFL is having ripple effects in Vegas.
Remember how refs are increasing home field advantage? Well, if you wanted more proof, Vegas has taken notice. According to AP, Mike Colbert, an oddsmaker for Cantor Gaming, is urging giving home teams an extra half-point in their favor. That's no small swing by gambling standards.
Vegas is also placing its over/unders for total points scored in a game at their highest levels ever.
And last night's botched call on the final play of the Seahawks-Packers game swung $300 million.
8. Games Are Teetering Into Chaos
The real danger the replacement refs pose to the integrity of the game (get ready to read that term a lot until the lockout ends) is that the replacement refs seem to have very little control over the game, and they exhibit less and less as the weeks go on and the calls get worse. Coaches don't respect them, players don't respect them, and fans don't respect them.
Nearly every game is seeing players getting at each other after plays and near brawls out on the field. It's dangerous and stupid and makes things seem completely out of control. The locked out refs made mistakes, but you generally knew what to expect of them and they had power to keep things in control. With the replacement refs we have no idea what will happen. Extra timeouts are being taken, players are tackling with their helmets, and every games feels a thin line away from breaking into complete chaos.
9. The Players Union Is Standing With The Refs
The player's union has sent an open letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to end the lockout. The players themselves have taken to Twitter to voice their displeasure with the lockout.
Our strength coach just summed up last night perfectly. "You know we're in trouble when the end of MNF is more preposterous than WWE RAW."
— Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) September 25, 2012
I love this league and love the game of football, but tonight’s debacle hurts me greatly. This is NOT the league we’re supposed to represent
— Drew Brees (@drewbrees) September 25, 2012
These refs gotta go I'm sorry
— Reggie Bush (@reggie_bush) September 25, 2012
Fuck it NFL.. Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs.
— TJ Lang (@TJLang70) September 25, 2012
Well we knew this was bound to happen but on Monday night football? Come on the replacement zebras aren't fit for this zoo! Lol
— DeAngelo Williams (@DeAngeloRB) September 25, 2012
And there are hundreds more like those.
10. It Might Be Up To The Owners To End This
I think we can all agree, that whatever the players' outrages, there's little chance of them convincing Goodell to end the lockout. It's going to come down to the owners giving in a little. This whole time I've been talking about the NFL vs the referees, but the owners are the NFL. Now, the blame for the lockout lies with Goodell. He's their chief negotiator and he's been in charge of these negotiation. It's his job to steer the league and that includes the owners if they're engaging in something bad for the league.
It isn't clear what level of this lockout is Goodell's idea and what level is him rolling over to every single owner demand, but what is clear is that a number of the owners are going to get fed up with seeing their star players injured or a game being taken away from them on a bad call. I can't imagine some of the more reasonable owners aren't already up in arms. This lockout may all come down to the owners getting tired of their teams being hurt by all the chaos.