The NFL can insist all it wants that the national outrage over the performance of replacement officials had nothing to do with ending its lockout of referees. Hogwash. It had everything to do with the agreement reached Wednesday night, which ended the lockout and calmed the criticism that reached a crescendo after Monday night’s bizarre ending in Seattle.
The media — the national news media, not just the sports folks — have complained. Coaches and players have complained. Fans started petitions and complained. The president of the United States complained. The replacements were clearly out of their depth, and as I wrote a week ago, the integrity of the league was at stake.
When the results of your games are called into question by officiating mistakes, you will lose credibility, and for good reason.
The NFL has a gigantic TV contract, its already enviable ratings are increasing, and it owns the American viewing audience in a way no other sport does. The NFL knew that no matter how angry everyone was, come Sunday, we were all going to turn on the TV and watch the product it provided. For many, football is ingrained in the psyche. We are unable or unwilling to turn it off to make a point.
But that doesn’t mean the public was powerless. Tuesday’s bargaining session was scheduled before Monday night’s debacle, but if you believe that the national outcry wasn’t on everyone’s minds as they gathered to negotiate, think again.
Instant replay, slo-mo, clips on the Internet — all of these were used by fans and media to dissect the play. The NFL then defended the final call — but admitted the officials missed a previous one that would have given the game to the Packers. (If Green Bay misses the playoffs by one game, don’t think we won’t hear about the Seattle screw-up again.)
No matter which side you took in the disagreement between the league and the refs, the settlement seems to have given both a little bit of what they wanted. Compromise — what a concept. And after months of almost no movement on either side, the deal got done in less than 48 hours. Amazing.
The referees get an increase in salary and the league can make some of them full-time employees, which seems a smart play to me. The league and the refs ought to be on the same page where the rule book is concerned, for instance. The refs ought to have more of a voice in decisions like additional instant replay — they have a feel for the rhythm of the game — and the length of games, which had reached ridiculous proportions in the first three weeks of the season.
The refs didn’t want their pensions converted to 401k plans, and to me that was reasonable. They were promised one retirement package when they were hired; it makes sense, if the league wants to change its program, that it should start with new hires. That will happen, with the rest of the officials gradually being converted to the 401k system. Again, that seems a fair compromise.
The league also will be able to hire more officials, train them and replace officials who perform poorly. This was a concession by the union, and an important one. If the league wants to protect its image, and the officials want to be regarded as an integral part of the NFL, they have to be held to a high standard. The past three weeks prove that the league’s fans deeply care about this.
The new deal is expected to be officially ratified Saturday morning. Sunday, expect to see players and coaches greeting the fellows in the striped shirts with more enthusiasm than usual. Then expect coaches to argue with the regular officials when they get a call wrong, or when coaches believe they’ve gotten a call wrong.
The honeymoon period may only last about one quarter of football. But coaches like the Shanahans will no longer have to spend their time trying to instruct officials on the rule book, and the games won’t be stopped every few minutes while officials confer. That will be an improvement in everyone’s viewing experience.
But mostly, the deal is good for the refs, and it shows the NFL is willing to share its prodigious wealth to protect the reputation of the game. That’s all the fans, the media, even the president, really wanted. If the NFL is going to be our national pastime, we have to feel that it adheres to our ideals of fair play.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.
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