Botched call, previous negotiations, set stage for settlement with NFL refs

September 27, 2012

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was already in bed Monday night by the time the final play of the Green Bay Packers-
Seattle Seahawks game
unfolded on the television screen in front of him.

Kraft, weary after arriving home at 2:30 a.m. from his team’s loss Sunday night in Baltimore, had no way to know then that the botched call by the National Football League’s replacement officials, which gave the Seahawks a game-winning touchdown, would spark a national furor so intense that even President Obama would weigh in with an opinion. But Kraft certainly sensed that the leaders of the nation’s most popular and prosperous sport had a problem on their hands.

“I knew it wasn’t something we wanted,” Kraft said by telephone Thursday. “But sometimes with difficult things, some good comes out.”

For the NFL and its fans, the good is an eight-year labor pact with the NFL Referees Association that was completed Wednesday night, in time to send the replacements home and get regular officials back on the field Thursday evening in Baltimore. The deal was reached less than 48 hours after the chaotic ending of Monday’s game in Seattle.

It was a turbulent two days for the NFL, with Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s attorney, Jeff Pash, fielding phone calls from owners and returning to the bargaining table to hammer out the details of the agreement.

“There’s no question that game was the final straw,” said one owner, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing the internal ownership dynamics behind the deal. “I still think it probably would have gotten done. I just don’t know if it would have gotten done in time for this week’s games.”

That opinion wasn’t universally held. One person with knowledge of the league’s view of the negotiations said he was convinced before Monday night’s fiasco that the NFL and the regular referees were headed toward a deal that “more than likely” would have come this week anyway.

By many accounts, the officials’ handsome salaries were less an obstacle than the owners’ insistence on long-term change in the way they put away pension money for the part-timers who keep order during the organized mayhem of NFL games. The officials currently earn an average of about $150,000 for 20 games.

The owners, many of them business titans who made their fortunes outside football, wanted to move the 121 officials in the NFL Referees Association to a 401(k) retirement system in which labor and management share contributions, instead of the lucrative defined benefit system the owners fund now. All those dollars are just a tiny fraction of the NFL’s more than $9 billion in revenue, a figure that is expected to grow significantly in coming years.

The owners also wanted more freedom to replace officials they believe aren’t performing well.

Then came Monday night’s debacle in Seattle. The furor it provoked certainly provided a healthy incentive for the owners to settle their labor dispute. One league official said he was told by a relative who is a Seahawks fan that it was a great call, then braced for a firestorm. “It was going to be Topic A,” the league official said.

By Tuesday, the story had gone quickly beyond the sports realm, filling the airwaves of the morning network news shows.

“Not much surprises me about what happens in the NFL and the influence and attention that it gets. . .This moved quickly into mainstream media,” Goodell said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “That is a signal of the influence of the game in today’s society.”

Goodell and Pash had been in regular contact throughout the referee negotiations with a four-member advisory panel of influential owners—the Atlanta Falcons’ Arthur Blank, the Houston Texans’ Robert McNair, the New York Giants’ John Mara and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Clark Hunt. League officials had spoken with about 20 owners who’d attended committee meetings last week in New York. And they heard from owners in the aftermath of the Monday night game. Some were alarmed by what they’d seen.

“I certainly felt an urgency [to finish a deal] before Monday,” said the owner who asked to speak anonymously. “But after Monday, I felt more urgency. I didn’t see how you could go into the weekend [with the replacements]. We were in an impossible position for them to do their jobs with the scrutiny they were under.”

Still, the overwhelming sentiment from the owners to the league, according to a person familiar with the dialogue, wasn’t panic. Stay the course, they told negotiators. Don’t overreact to one call in one game.

“There was not one single owner who ever said, ‘We need to get this settled, whatever it takes.’ Not one single owner,” that person said. In fact, some owners wanted to make no further concessions, even after the fiasco in Seattle.

“There were a lot of owners that wanted to hold firm even after Monday night,” the owner said. “These guys aren’t used to getting pushed around. They didn’t get to where they’ve gotten in business by getting pushed around. A number felt we should continue to hold the line. But others felt we should move and get it done. And fortunately their side [the referees] moved, too. It took both sides to move. They were under pressure, too, with the games they were missing.”

The views of Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder were not clear Thursday. Snyder declined to comment through a spokesman.

Goodell and other league negotiators felt comfortable compromising with the referees, said the owner who spoke anonymously, after they became convinced they’d have the support of crucial owners. But even ownership moderates, the owner said, had no interest in striking a deal at any cost, just to push the replacements off the field.

“I would have liked to have done it a little sooner,” the owner said. “But you can’t cave in and give them everything they want. It sets a horrible precedent for the rest of your business. The owners really wanted to get out of the [pension] plan. The question was whether that was going to happen in year one, year five, year eight. It ended up being year five, closer to what they [the referees] wanted than what we wanted. But the feeling at that point was, let’s get the principle we want and not worry too much more about the money.”

Under the compromise, reached this week, pensions for current officials will be frozen after the 2016 season. At that point, they will be moved into 401(k) retirement plans. All newly hired officials will have 401(k) plans.

The deal also gives the officials raises that will reach an average of $205,000 in 2019, the final year of the agreement. The league achieved its goals of making some officials full-time employees and increasing the total number of officials. A developmental pool of officials could be assigned to cover games in place of officials the NFL regards to be under-performing.

Kraft called those non-economic provisions particularly important. All of this week’s angst, he said, was worth it.

“When you want to do a deal long term, you can’t let short-term pressures affect you,” Kraft said. “I think we’ve done that in the past and we were resolved not to do that again. . . . Roger took a lot of hits. But in the end, he did what was right for the game long term.”

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