The fair call on NFL referees


Members of the NFL Referees Association were locked out after talks broke down. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
September 21, 2012

The sticking point in the labor dispute between NFL owners and the league’s referees may be benefits. Referees want to continue their defined-benefit pension plan, or at least have it continue for existing officials, while the league wants to freeze the plan for current refs and move them into a 401(k) plan, which brings greater risk.

But the more interesting negotiating factor, I think, is the one surrounding accountability. The league is trying to up the number of officials it has available, putting together a “bench” that can be used to replace officials it deems to be underperformers. Currently, NBC Sports reports, officials are subject to week-to-week grading that could get them fired or demoted once the season ends, but which can allow them—perhaps complacently—to stay on through the remainder of the season.

The league wants to be able to pull struggling officials during the season and hopes to change the system from one of “entitlement” to one of “accountability.” Unsurprisingly, the referees are resisting this. If you were an NFL referee, wouldn’t you do everything you could to hang on to a part-time job that paid you $149,000 a year, along with a pension plan, and came with little threat of being replaced mid-season?

I get why referees are fighting for their pension plan and pay increases. Given the league pulled in $9.3 billion in sales last year, NFL owners should come up with a better explanation to rationalize the benefits change than just that nearly everyone else in the world has a 401(k) rather than a defined-benefit pension plan. Grandfathering in veteran refs and switching the plan over for new officials seems to make sense, especially when referee labor costs make up such a small percentage of the league’s revenues.

But part and parcel to the refs’ argument that they should keep such cushy benefits is that they truly deserve them. So if they really are so valuable that they need raises and good benefits, shouldn’t they also have the confidence not to worry about whether the league sets up a bench of trained officials who can step in if their performance falls? The players they officiate over can be benched at any time. The coaches on the sidelines can be fired and replaced mid-season for underperformance. Shouldn’t the referees calling the games be subject to the same accountability?

Maybe they are concerned about what could happen if such rules went into place. As the Post’s Sally Jenkins writes, “One of the amnesiac fallacies growing out of the current hapless officiating by third-tier college replacements is that the regular NFL crews don’t screw up so badly. We’ve forgotten just how awful they can be. Their work is not great, and the league is right to try to restructure operations.”

But here’s the thing about good pay and great benefits: They should be the reward for a job well done. If referees want to hold onto their pension plans, they should also be subject to more consequences if their performance falters. For players, the league and fans, it’s the only fair call.

More from Jena McGregor and On Leadership:

How Rahm Emanuel handled the Chicago teachers strike

Do jerks make better leaders?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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