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The NFL Fiasco: Why Referees Are Like Chicago Teachers

Karl Taro Greenfeld

The National Football League’s lockout of the NFL Referees Association is a clash of historic proportions. Never before has so much media attention been paid to a labor dispute involving so few actual laborers—the 120 NFL referees. And until Monday night, it seemed this was a labor dispute with little impact.

Despite fan anguish, player discontent, and coach histrionics, the NFL’s television ratings are up so far this season. Attendance is on par with 2011, averaging 65,000 fans per game. So where was the incentive for league officials to end the lockout? Sunday’s negotiations concluded with both sides far apart on the issues and no future talks scheduled. Then came Monday night, and the first demonstrable case of a game that was decided by the actions — or mistakes — of replacement referees. Seattle beat Green Bay 14-12 on the final play of the game, as referees appeared to botch a clear-cut call to deliver a reception, and touchdown, to the home team. The headline on ESPN.com said it all: Clueless in Seattle.

Even before Monday, the psychedelic officiating had caused some near-hallucinogenic moments: The sight of Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Kevin Ogletree slipping on a hat mistakenly tossed on the field by a replacement referee, perhaps costing Dallas a touchdown, was my Week 3 scab highlight. New England coach Bill Belichick grabbed at an official in frustration as his team lost on what it believed to be a missed field goal; Denver coach John Fox was fined $30,000 by the league for lashing out at the chaos in last week’s game. Still, business was good.

Roger Goodell should be issuing his weekly blandishment about the great job the replacement refs are doing momentarily.

However trifling in a financial sense, the lockout reflects a larger trend in the American workplace. The NFL and the NFLRA are wrestling over the same issues that dominated America’s other widely watched labor dispute: the Chicago teachers strike. While most accounts have focused on the NFL’s desire to do away with the NFLRA’s pension plan as the central sticking point in negotiations, a less talked-about, but equally contentious, issue is pay for performance. The NFL wants to increase the number of officials to 141, creating a bench of trained referees who could be brought in to give other referees a break, but also to replace those referees who the league feels have been blowing calls. A league spokesman said, “If a guy is underperforming, we could take a guy and sit him down for a while and bring someone else up.”

NFL officials make an average of $149,000 per year, and the league has suggested annual 7 percent increases that would raise the regular salary to $189,000 by 2018. While that’s good money for a part-time gig, NFL referees, like players, are paid by the game. If an official misses a few games because of a few bad calls, that can cut into compensation. And the NFLRA, like the Chicago Teachers Union, doesn’t want its members’ compensation subject to performance reviews.

The philosophical objections are actually similar: Context is everything. The criteria for benching a ref may ultimately be as subjective as judging a child’s test scores without looking at his socioeconomic background, a central objection among teachers to their salary being tied to standardized testing. In other words, officiating, like teaching, is as much art as science.

We can take some small reassurance that in a business taking in $9 billion a year, at least part of the reason the dispute is dragging on is philosophical rather than financial. Just keep that in mind the next time your team is penalized for an imaginary pass interference call.

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