Keeping Score

You Lose, NFL: Why the Referee Lockout Has to End

Confusion and comedy on Monday Night Football is the tipping point: players, coaches and fans can no longer tolerate the NFL lockout.

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Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images

Wide receiver Golden Tate #81 of the Seattle Seahawks makes a catch in the end zone to defeat the Green Bay Packers on a controversial call by the officials at CenturyLink Field on September 24, 2012 in Seattle, Washington.

Roger Goodell ascended to the position of NFL commissioner because, from the day he started at the league as an intern, no one was more zealous about “protecting the shield” – marketing jargon for making the NFL logo a symbol of integrity, gripping entertainment, and success. That’s why, upon being named commissioner in 2006, he took a hard line against player misconduct. That’s why, as the medical science revealed that the NFL’s relative ambivalence towards concussions was, at best, misguided and at worst, fraudulent – as the more than 2,000 ex-players suing the league are arguing – Goodell has taken important steps to improve player safety.

And that’s why Goodell’s ongoing lockout of the NFL’s officials, which has allowed the replacement refs to embarrass the game, is so mystifying. He’s not protecting the shield. He’s smashing it with a battle-ax.

In a nightmare scenario for the NFL, the referees have saved their worst performances for prime time. Monday night’s disaster has to be enough, right? On the last play of the game between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, with his team trailing 12-7, fired a Hail Mary into the end zone. Seahawks receiver Golden Tate pushed Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields, an obvious pass interference that should have ended the game. No call on that one.

(MORE: Watch: That Packers-Seahawks Monday Night Football Touchdown)

Tate leapt for the ball with four other Packers. But Green Bay’s M.D. Jennings grabbed it first. It looked, and felt, like an interception. As everyone fell to the ground, however, Tate clutched the ball too. After a few seconds of scrumming, two officials ran over to the pile, glanced at each other, and took a stab: one guy held up the sign for a touchback, ruling it an interception. The other guy held up his arms: touchdown.

They were Abbott and Costello in stripes. Who’s on first? Of course, the cameras caught the confusion. The image of the two refs, offering two different conclusions to a crucial play, between two NFC contenders, on Monday Night Football, could define this 2012 season.

Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images

Since the touchdown signal is much more familiar – who hasn’t raised their arms in the backyard after throwing two-hand-touch score? — and the game was in Seattle, the crowd roared. The Seahawks started celebrating. The touchdown, it seems, would prevail.

Then came more confusion. “You can’t go to replay to determine who caught the ball,” ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico said. So the ruling on the field would stand. Yet, the play was reviewed on instant replay. After even more delay, the ref confirmed the call, sending the Seattle crowd into more joyous hysterics. The game finally ended, 10 minutes after the disputed catch, when, in an another bizarre scene, players were called back onto the field to kick the extra point. Final score: Seattle 14, Green Bay 12. Some $250 million in gambling money may have changed hands because of the controversial call.

On Tuesday, the NFL released a statement saying that, indeed, the ruling of a “simultaneous catch” is reviewable by instant replay, when it occurs in the end zone. If two players catch a throw at the same time, the offense gets to keep it: tie goes to the receiver, so to speak.  That was the on-field ruling, and why Tate was awarded the touchdown.

However, the rulebook states, “It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.” That’s what appeared to happen here. When you watch the replay, Jennings, the defensive player, grasped it first. But the according to its statement, replacement ref Wayne Elliott ruled that no “indisputable video evidence existed to overturn the call on the field.” The NFL says it “supports the decision.”

(MORE: Monday Night Football Official Statement: Refs Right In Reception Decision, Blew Pass Interference Call)

Hmmm. Well, even the NFL admitted that the refs screwed up by not calling the Tate’s pass interference. And whether or not the replay was too close to overturn may, in the end, prove irrelevant. The picture of the different hand signals, already splashed all over America and beyond, may do more lasting damage.

After the disaster, players and fans raged on Twitter. “I love this league and love the game of football,” wrote New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, “but tonight’s debacle hurts me greatly. This is NOT the league we’re supposed to represent.” The Packers, of course, were pissed. “Embarrassing. Thanks nfl,” wrote Green Bay offensive lineman T.J. Lang. “F— it NFL. Fine me and use the money to go play the regular refs.”

“Godspeed, Ed Hochuli,” Houston Texans star running back Arian Foster, referring to the regular ref with bulging biceps who calls many high-profile games. Usually, Hochuli gets social media flack for his winded explanation of the rules. Now, every NFL player, coach, and fan is ready to bring him back on a chariot.

Throughout the preseason, and in the first three weeks of the regular season, the incompetence of the officiating was building to this flashpoint. On the Sunday night game this week, between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, the ref’s huddles were longer, the confusion evident, the penalties stranger. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, for example, was hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in the game, though he claimed to just be calling a timeout. The NFL has asked its players and coaches to show the replacements more respect. But frustration is boiling over. After Baltimore kicked the last-second, game-winning field goal, which sailed just above the uprights, barely, Pats coach Bill Belichick grabbed an official as he was running off the field, looking for an explanation. That move will earn him a fine, if not a suspension. Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan chased a ref down a hallway after his team lost on Sunday. In a particularly ugly moment, Pittsburgh’s Larry Foote said to the officials “you should go kill yourselves” after his team lost to Oakland.

The NFL is losing control. While flipping through the games the last few weeks, the fights stand out. More players are pushing and shoving after plays. That’s only natural if no one respects the cops. Here, the referee lockout reeks of hypocrisy. Goodell and the league say they’re all about player safety. Yet, the games keep getting more heated every week. Even injuries can’t be directly attributable to the refs – yet. Morally, how can the league take any more risk?

(MORE: The 14 Best Tweets About the Controversial Packers-Seahawks Call)

A moment of fairness here: these replacements deserve some credit, because under impossible scrutiny, they’ve gotten many, if not most, calls correct. But all the errors tarnish the NFL’s reputation. And they should, because the regulars will always be more likely to get things right. The NFL can say the officiating is adequate, and point out that regular refs make stupid mistakes too. That’s true. Would the regulars, for instance, have botched last night’s call? Maybe. But by default, we get to assume that they wouldn’t. We get to assume that they wouldn’t spot the ball in mysterious places, like some replacements have, or lengthen the games with all their conversations. Because the Ed Hochulis have been there before. They have the proper training, and experience.

The NFL can no longer convince anyone that it’s not all that bad. We know what we’ve seen. For coaches and players, complaining about the refs is standard. But can all the coaches and players ripping these officials be wrong?

So what now? Quite simply, the NFL needs to give in. Roger Goodell isn’t used to losing negotiations. But he’ll be a better, and more respected, commissioner if he admits he was wrong on this one. He’ll have an even better product. At this point, the main economic sticking point seems to be the retirement benefit for the refs. The NFL wants to put their nest egg in a 401(k).  The refs want to keep their traditional pension plans. “About 10 percent of the country has that,” Goodell told Politico in early September, talking about pensions. “Yours truly doesn’t have that.” Just because most American workers have been forced into risky 401(k)s, however, doesn’t make it right. And it’s much easier for Goodell – who makes a reported $10 million a year now, and whose salary will double by the end of his contract in 2019 – to withstand the tremors of the markets than it is for most workers, even refs — who, according to the NFL, make an average of $149,000 a year for part-time work.

The NFL, whose annual revenues are approaching $10 billion, can afford pensions. Or can come up with a compromise. If it costs the league more money than it wanted to part with, well, tough luck. Such is the cost of this comedy of errors.

MORE: Will Replacement Refs Risk The Safety Of NFL Players?

24 comments
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pgccOWL
pgccOWL

This weekend I'm gonna watch my favorite team play to see if they've won. I gotta support my team.

Schnitt
Schnitt

Yes it was a bad call, but seriously let it go… I’m personally loving the new incantation of Football.. its more brutal, more primal, kind of like in the 70’s when you could fill your cast on your arm with lead, or use sticky tape on your gloves..

Being fair is no longer important.. being an entertaining blood sport is.

Jmuniz8946
Jmuniz8946

I love who every news outlet is making this huge news!!!

When we have other issues to worry about.

A HS just spent 2.5 Million bucks on a new football stadium and their scholastic rating suck! The HS is going to have to forfeit their season because they coaches violated a practice rule!! Smh!!! How about we worry about education!!!

zaglossus
zaglossus

I'm going to go watch some baseball now.

William List
William List

It is interesting how this is getting so much attention. It is a sport - a game. In the grand scheme of life it is minor at most. Our lack of perspective with sports is what led to the Penn State mess. It is what drives cities to spend millions on stadiums while they close libraries. It is what drives people to spend hundreds to sit in the cold and wet - rather than watch the game on TV and contribute the $s to the volunteer fire dept. We are 15 trillion in debt people - who cares about a game.  Watch it, enjoy the diversion, then forget it. It is of no imoportance beyond that.

yodadog
yodadog

Well put-pro sports are a huge waste of peoples, and the nations, time and resources.

max_cady
max_cady

What kind of Union is the players Union?

It is time for the players to go on strike to help the Refs.

brenro
brenro

I refuse to watch any more of this circus side show until the NFL gets it's act together.

Nonaffiliated
Nonaffiliated

I don't see what the fuss is.  I see bad calls in every game, every week, even when the regular refs are calling the games.  So, why is everyone so upset?  It's a game.  Refs are human (even the 'regular' refs).  Unless you think the replacements are favoring certain teams, it'll all average out in the end. 

I guarantee you that when the regular refs come back, they will totally screw up and cost some team a game.  It happens every year and this one will be no different.

Yahoo
Yahoo

You are crazy if you think the officiating is the same as before...or you are not really watching the game. The old refs managed the game and knew the rules. There was not NEARLY as much widespread chaos as with the games now. The problem is that onconsistency creates room for more egregious and dangerous fouls which put players at increased risk. On top of that (if you paid attention to the point of the article) the quality of the "product" being sold is being tarnished...not good for the NFL in the long run. A point of pride for the NFL (and a major reason why I have been loyal over the years beyonf just being a football fan) is that the league has been managed so well...it is an example for all other professional sports to emulate. That is quickly being made a mockery of because skill, teamwork and athlketicism are being negated by poor officiating.

drabidea
drabidea

Football is probably the hardest sport to officiate. There is so much going on and the experienced players have been doing it for so long they know how to get away with some things. 

The refs are not purposely trying to screw it up for a particular team, they are just ruining the game. None of the players can play at their full potential because they don't know what they can or can't do. 

It has basically turned every game into a coin flip where talent, ability, and performance doesn't matter.

Nonaffiliated
Nonaffiliated

I disagree.  I've enjoyed the games this year just as much as last year.  If hadn't been bombarded with endless news about the replacement refs, I wouldn't even know the difference. 

Consider these blown calls: 

- SuperBowl 2006: http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/bl...

- Broncos/Chargers 2008: http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/...

- 2012 NFC Wildcard game: http://aeryssports.com/barry-s...

Or, remember when a referee hit Orlando Brown in the eye with his flag?  The player missed 3 seasons.  Imagine if a replacement ref had done that.

The list of screw-ups is endless because all referees are human.

Monday night was business as usual! 

LA Triathlete
LA Triathlete

Bad calls, and whining about them, has occurred before the lock-out, and will continue after the lockout, forever.  I agree the replacement refs are worse than the regular refs, but even the regular refs receive a great deal of abuse and criticism.  Being a ref is worse than being the president, and I cannot fathom why anybody in their right mind would even consider doing it.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

The real story is that the NFL can't change any of the rulings now because it would make the gambling world very unhappy. This is't just about football scores. As much as $2-4 billion could be involved so far this season, probably much of it illegal.

Randmac
Randmac

THanks for accurately calling this a "lock out" and not a Strike.   The Owners want to get rid of something they previously agreed to, pensions.  The Refs are just trying to keep what they already have.

sandiegoson
sandiegoson

Here's how to boycott the NFL and STILL watch your favorite team:

1) Record the game to your dvr while not watching.

2) Watch the recording but ZAP through the commercials.

3) The NFL's advertisers will go ballastic and force the NFL to make changes.

With the NFL it's about the $$$, not the game.

e-Sherpa
e-Sherpa

Accepting the situation waiting for it to go bad before doing something is irresponsible. 

Anyone stepping up now to complain lacks moral fortitude.

The business that is professional football entertained you all and elevated emotions to a susceptible state and loaded in the commercials.  

Chances are someone else got richer at your expense.

Life never was, nor will it ever be, fair.

Boobidy
Boobidy

I think it's kind of unfair to get all over the replacement officials for trying to do a job they're not trained for. And with everyone jumping all over them even more, I'm shocked they want to come out and try anymore. The focus of anger should be at Roger Goodell playing his games trying to prove a point. You need the refs that you trained and have the requirements to be an NFL official, these guys you have out there now are not trained nearly enough to do that. I'm sure being on national television, under scrutiny for EVERYTHING they do is extremely hard to do and they want to get it right. As for the Green Bay game, the guy in the booth doing the reviews is and NFL official, so, he should be making the right call. Green Bay didn't play very well anyways, so they didn't exactly work for a win here guys, I mean, Aaron Rodgers getting sacked 9 times is ridiculous. The owners need to go after Woodell and maybe then this will settle. I guess we should be happy there is football and not another stoppage because of a stupid lockout. Oh and the guy that told the refs to kill themselves, you're a douche, and they should suspend you for something so ignorant.

drabidea
drabidea

I think the majority of the fans are mad at Goodell and not the replacement refs. Most people saw this coming after the first preseason game and yet he did nothing.

Yes Green Bay played terrible but so did the Seahawks. Neither offense got into a groove and that was primarily due to refs throwing a wishy-washy flag every single play. 

I personally am not watching another football game until at a minimum the refs come back. I might even boycott till Goodell is fired

Red_belt
Red_belt

A new (and ironic) joke is being told by us Seahawks fans...

Q: "How do you tell when the NFL is using replacement refs?"

A: "They hand the game TO the Seahawks instead of TAKING it" :-)

Commentonitall
Commentonitall

"these replacements deserve some credit, because under impossible scrutiny, they’ve gotten many, if not most, calls correct. "  No, no they most certainly have not.

Did you watch the Pats and Ravens?  My God these refs are terrible.  I remember seeing a camera in the uprights in previous seasons, why not that game.  As for Green Bay all I can say is I'm sorry.  They do not deserve credit because in order for that to happen they would have to be trying.  Based on what I have seen they just flip a coin and make a call.  I really don't feel like watching football anymore because I feel robbed of a fair, level minded game.

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