This past Monday, immediately following the Seattle Seahawks’ victory over the Green Bay Packers, ESPN.com ran a reader poll: “what did you make of the touchdown call at the end of the Packers-Seahawks game?” Voters had two choices: “it was correctly ruled as a touchdown” or “it should have been an interception.” If you don’t follow football closely, the question would have struck you as strange. How could there be uncertainty as to whether a play resulted in a touchdown or an interception? For NFL fans, though, this kind of confusion has been the focal point of the first three weeks of the season-a season that has had one of the strangest starts in sports history.
The Seahawks, playing at home, were losing 7–12. With time to execute one final play, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson lofted a long pass to wide receiver Golden Tate, who was in the corner of the end zone, surrounded by three Packer defensemen. As the players jumped to the ball, Packers safety M.D. Jennings appeared to snatch the game-ending interception. On the way down, however, Tate got his hands on the ball as well, and all four men landed in a tangled heap, the ball completely obscured among the flailing limbs. Two referees ran over to inspect. One referee immediately raised his arms to signal a touchdown. The other swiftly ruled the play an interception. As is customary on such tough calls, the officials gathered on the sidelines to watch an instant replay. The video, shown to the referees and the 16.2 million watching around the country, seemed to prove, without much doubt, that Jennings had intercepted the pass. America was fully expecting a reversal of the decision when the head referee emerged to address the players and crowd. The verdict: play upheld. Touchdown. Seahawks win.
NFL referees have made bad calls before, but what made this one noteworthy was that it wasn’t made by actual NFL referees. The regular refs were on strike, and with the top college officials refusing to stand in as an act of solidarity, the league had turned to woefully unprepared replacements. Just a few weeks ago, these men were working as bankers and real estate agents; one replacement had never called a college game above the Division III level prior to this season.
At the heart of the labor dispute were retirement benefits. The league wanted to freeze the referees’ decades-old pension plan in favor of a 401(k) system. The NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) wouldn’t abide the change and asked for $16.5 million in additional benefits over the next five years. “The key is the pension issue,” NFLRA head Scott Green, himself a referee, told The Huffington Post. “A lot of our guys have made life-career decisions based on assuming that pension would be there.” In the NFL, $16.5 million over five years works out to about $100,000 per team per year—a figure roughly one-twentieth of the average annual salary of an NFL player. The referees had been on strike since June.
In football, there are 22 players on the field during every play, and the difference between a legal move and a penalty can be something as small as the angle of someone’s shoulders at the point of contact. As such, officiating in the NFL can be much more complicated than in other major sports. Prior to the start of the season, no one around the league seemed to know exactly how the change would effect the games, but it quickly became clear the replacements were in way over their heads. Replays from the season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants showed players executing egregious holding penalties after both sides realized the officials were scared to make controversial calls. In response to the opening-night backlash, replacement officials around the league started calling an outrageous number of penalties. The trend came to a crescendo the night before the controversial finish in Seattle, when the New England Patriots played the Baltimore Ravens in a matchup of last season’s AFC Championship game. Responding to some chippy play early on, replacement referees called an astounding 24 penalties over four quarters (in 2011, the Ravens and Patriots combined for an average of 10.4 penalties per game). On the last play of the game, Raven’s kicker Justin Tucker lined up for a field goal attempt with his team down 28-30. The kick sailed to the right and high, so high that it went over the top of the right goalpost. The referees immediately ruled the kick good, and the New England sideline erupted in anger. As the officials ran—literally ran—off the field, usually reserved Patriots coach Bill Belichick grabbed a passing official, demanding an explanation. The move was shocking—NFL coaches, no matter how angry they get, never grab a referee—and Belichick was docked $50,000 the next day. Belichick wasn’t the only coach fined that day—Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had to give up $25,000 for accosting an official in the tunnel after his team’s game. The replacements have caused off-field controversy as well. The league pulled a line judge minutes before he was set to work a New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers game after his Facebook profile revealed him to be a diehard Saints fan. The Lingerie Football League recently released a statement saying that they had once fired a handful of incompetent refs that the NFL had picked up as replacements.
This was the turmoil that backgrounded the calamity in Seattle. For years fans have been kvetching that a bad call ‘cost their team the game.’ On Monday night, however, Packer fans could truly claim they had been robbed of a victory—the call had literally cost them the game. The referees’ decision was so bad that on Tuesday morning the NFL issued a statement saying that Tate’s actions in attempting to catch the ball “should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game” and given the Packers the win. The NFL, however, does not change the outcome of games retroactively. In a league with a 16-game regular season, every game has huge importance. Last year, the New York Giants finished the regular season 9-7, just barely making the playoffs. A month later, they capped an incredible playoff run with a Super Bowl Championship. Had the Giants lost just one more game and gone 8-8 in 2011, a different team would be the defending champion. The loss could also have huge financial implications for the Packers, the only publicly traded franchise in the NFL. As American Public Media’s Marketplace reports, even if the Packers do make the playoffs—which they are still likely to do—Monday’s loss could effect how many playoff games they get to host. Between luxury boxes, general ticket sales, parking, concessions and advertisements, losing a home playoff game means missing out on millions in revenue and the Packers weren’t the only ones who lost money on Monday night. Various estimates report that the final call swung anywhere between $150 million and $1 billion dollars in bets—one website, the offshore betting hub SportsBook, was even planning to refund some betters who wagered on Green Bay.
The replacement referees skewed the outcome of important games, and may have put player safety at risk with their inability to monitor dangerous play. This debacle, though, has led fans to an even more troubling realization: that the NFL may simply be too big to fail. Hall-of-fame quartback and current ESPN commentator Steve Young captured the dynamic in a recent on-air rant:
Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There’s nothing they can do right now to hurt the demand for the game. The bottom line is they don’t care. Player safety doesn’t matter in this case. Bring in the Division III officials – it doesn’t matter. In the end you’re still going to watch the game, we’re going to all complain and moan and gripe but...it doesn’t matter. Go ahead gripe all they want. I’m going to rest. Let them eat cake.
Odd Marie Antoinette reference aside, Young highlights an important paradox. Americans care so much about the NFL (roughly 136 million voted in the record-setting 2008 presidential election; 111 million watched last year’s Super Bowl) that they’re unlikely to stop watching even if their tuning-out would be in protest of an issue that desperately needs adressing. Many Packers have mentioned that they’re considering some kind of organized dissent, but in a league where the average career is fewer than four years long, it’s unlikely that players will ever do much to put their paychecks in jeopardy.
Late Wednesday night, the league reached an agreement with the NFLRA that will end the strike and have the real referees back on the field in time for Thursday’s game between the Ravens and the Cleveland Browns. The deal is a victory for fans, players, and officials, but the collective jubilation should be tempered by the realization that the dispute only ended after an unprecedented debacle. That the strike continued after weeks of blown calls and dangerous play suggests that the NFL is quite willing to operate without regard for player safety, the integrity of its sport, and the wellbeing of its employees if we’re all willing to keep watching. Either way, there will be football—real football—on Sunday, which is all anyone seemed to care about in the first place.
Sam Rosen B’14 will be watching on Sunday, no matter what.