“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.