Players and coaches moaned, swore, and even got fined for their exasperation at the hapless replacement refs who had made a hash of the first three weeks of this National Football League season. But in the end, it was NFL fandom – Wisconsin cheeseheads, Vegas bookmakers, big-name sponsors, and fantasy football players – whose howling outrage at the so-called “Inaccurate Reception” on Monday night got the ball moving toward breaking the NFL’s lockout of 121 regular officials over pay, pensions, and accountability.
A seemingly blown call by the replacement officials – ruling a last-second, Hail Mary pass by the Seattle Seahawks a reception rather than an interception – cost the Green Bay Packers the Monday night game and made it clear to nearly everyone involved that the NFL season was sliding quickly toward surrealism, or at least becoming, as ESPN analyst Jon Gruden pointed out, a tragicomedy.
As a result, the NFL and its regular refs reached an agreement just after midnight Thursday to end a month-long lockout and send a cohort of earnest, but ultimately underprepared replacements home.
The botched call on Monday became one of the first refereeing calls to ever turn into a bona fide “national event,” says Vermont Law School sports expert Michael McCann, as sports lounges and living rooms across the country erupted in confusion and outrage, and the post-game show got a record rating.
What followed were two days of intense water-cooler, Facebook, and Twitter outrage that, though the league may be loath to admit it, pushed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell into two marathon negotiating sessions that ended the lockout just ahead of Thursday night’s game.
The NFL became America’s premier sports league by sheer entertainment value, a demand for perfection, and a hard-earned reputation for integrity. Fielding replacement officials, says Mr. McCann, threatened all that by creating a comedy of errors that ended – predictably, many said – with the “Fail Mary” pass on Monday. (The previous two weeks and the preceding marquee game on Sunday night, too, were full of referee errors, as well as a palpable uncertainty and insecurity in the refs’ demeanor.)
“No one has questioned the integrity of the the NFL – that’s why it’s a $9 [billion] or $10 billion business,” says David Carter, director of the University of Southern California’s Sports Business Institute. “So for the NFL to lack integrity based on the replacement officials quickly became a big problem for them, because people expect perfection and the product to be seamless, and when they have a gaffe like this, it surprises a lot of folks, including those that fund the league.”
Lots of skeptical fans and cynical sports commentators pointed out that, ultimately, the NFL would take fans for suckers and continue to field the replacements, especially as ratings were up season to season because the stumblebum refs themselves had become a draw.
But McCann of the Vermont Law School disabused that notion, calling that strategy, “short-lived at best.”
And it became clear from the sudden speed and intensity of the negotiations to bring back the regular officials showed that Commissioner Goodell and the owners took the impact of their decision to field replacement officials personally and hard.
“No matter how money-driven fans think Roger Goodell and the owners are, they are human beings … [and] they do have pride in what they do,” writes ESPN columnist Darren Rovell. “They do know just how bad that call and the reaction surrounding it was.”
While the league could not reasonably call out its own replacements on the Monday night call, the deal to bring back the regular officials, in retrospect, became the league’s mea culpa to fans.
The new labor agreement will be sent to the union membership on Friday for approval, but the deal, in essence, is this: The officials, who are part time, will see their pay will go up from $149,000 a year to $205,000 by 2019. In return, the NFL received the option to start hiring full-time, full-year officials next year in order to increase flexibility by bringing more younger officials into a league that has seen the average age of its officials steadily increase.
The fact that the NFL was able to reach a deal so quickly, sports experts say, spoke to some basic lessons learned for the league. One is that lockouts should be reserved for situations where there are fundamental and philosophical differences between two sides, not bickering over amounts of money that pale compared with the league’s annual haul.
But most importantly, the league set aside its reputation for being ready and prepared in order to score ultimately negligible points in a labor dispute with a officials corps that, while perhaps not well-liked, had the respect of fans.
By not locking out the officials until the last moment and hiring lower-division college replacement officials to step in, the NFL, in essence, set a trap for itself and came within a few games of seriously damaging the league’s brand in the process.
“The NFL’s mistake was not better preparing for the lockout,” says McCann.