NFL, referees need to settle for players’ sakes

Sally Jenkins
Columnist September 19, 2012

There are construction sites safer than NFL stadiums at the moment. There ought to be a flyer in every locker room with a picture of a replacement referee: “DANGER! Falling Flags and Loose Officiating.” At the mouth of every stadium, there should be a bright yellow warning sign and orange cones. “CAUTION: Entering Hazardous Work Zone.”

The quarrel between NFL owners and referees is not your average management-labor situation. Most disputes between employers and laborers are over fair wages and workplace conditions, right? But in this instance, the NFL owners and the refs union — the two parties in the NFL who are most overpaid for doing the absolute least — are compromising the health, safety, and decent working conditions of the party who does the real work: the players.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Both sides are dead wrong. The soreheads of 32 arrogant owners and 121 clubby, egotistical refs are going to lead to someone else’s head being badly broken.

Get to the table, now, and make a deal. Shut up, Jerry Jones, with your bullying Jett Rink “My well come in! I’m a rich ’un!” babble. Clam up, Scott Green, with your disingenuous sob story on behalf of your fellow first-class travelers who make six figures for a month of Sundays. NFL players court greater physical risk, for less financial security than either of you.

Your responsibility to your wallets comes second to your responsibility for the safety of the players. There are some professions in which everyone should consent to cooperate in making the worksite a place where you don’t have an unreasonable expectation of breaking your neck, and this is one of them.

The owners are trying to define the refs as irrelevant to the overall health of the game, as well as spectator interest. The refs are attempting to paint themselves as critical personnel, whom the union-busting robber barons are trying to force into a coal mine. Both are equally insincere — and irresponsible.

There are two main points separating the owners and the refs. Each needs to give in on one point, and get this over with.

Pension: NFL refs enjoy princely benefits for working just 16 game days a year. The league owners want to roll this back, shifting the current guaranteed pension plan to the same market-vulnerable 401(k) contributions that most employees have. The refs are screaming this would reduce the owners’ funding obligation by 60 percent. Well, yeah. On the other side of the argument is Andrew Brandt, a former NFL general manager and now analyst for ESPN, who questions “why anyone working a once-a-week job for less than half the year gets a pension at all.”

Is there a compromise? Yes. Green, the head of the NFL refs association, says that veteran refs have made long-term retirement decisions based on the current plan. That’s understandable. They want their pension plan to be grandfathered for current officials. Give it to them — and let the league hire new ones under the proposed 401(k).

Operations: The NFL says it wants to shift from a system of “entitlement” to one of “accountability” and be able to relieve an official who is performing badly with a quality replacement. It proposes hiring more refs, employing some of them full-time, and developing a “bench” so the quality of officiating improves. Incredibly, the refs are resisting this. Why? Because it’s in their best interests to remain a small organization, with the league totally reliant on each and every one of them. That way, they work more, and earn more.

But it’s not in the best interest of the game, the players or the spectators. We’ve all seen officials who seem to blow calls repeatedly, or whose bellies grow until they labor to keep up with the play. 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.

One way the refs are digging in against this is by fighting over compensation. According to various analysts, the average official already makes $149,000, and the league claims to be offering pay increases of 5 to 11 percent. Now, that’s for moonlighting. Ninety percent of NFL officials have other full-time jobs. Let’s take an example. Say, Scott Green. He is a veteran official who started in 1991 and is regarded as a top back judge. He has appeared in three Super Bowls, also has been involved in some extremely poor and controversial calls.

Want to know his real job? He has his own Washington D.C. lobbying firm.

Know what he lobbies for? Safety issues.

The refs need to give in. Take your grandfathered pension, a moderate pay raise, and accept the sensible changes in operations the league wants to make.

The issue here is not whether the use of grossly under-qualified substitute officials makes the game slow, or unsightly, which it does, or whether there have been any competitive miscarriages, which there have.

The main issue is the chorus from players and coaches that poor officiating has created an uncontrolled environment that’s going to get someone badly injured. The owners need to make a concession, and the refs do too. So the guys who do the real work can do it without the equivalent of falling rock and loose soil causing unnecessary harm.

For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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