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NFL should pony up for real referees

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What’s going on here? The NFL needs to end the referee lockout as the gap between the replacement refs and the real thing becomes more apparent with each week. - GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Getty Images File Photo
  • What’s going on here? The NFL needs to end the referee lockout as the gap between the replacement refs and the real thing becomes more apparent with each week.

We all agree that the integrity of the NFL is being compromised by this referee lockout, right?

We’ve seen a fourth timeout awarded to the Seattle Seahawks, a six-minute delay made only to determine that a call was not reviewable, and a block in the back penalty against the 49ers while they were punting to the Green Bay Packers.

And those are just the Week 1 highlights.

The situation was less humorous last week once players realized how much dirty play they could get away with. We saw late hits, shoves after whistles and a near-brawl on “Monday Night Football.”

The revelation that a New Orleans Saints fan was assigned to officiate a Saints game and Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy’s claim that a referee told him “I need you for my fantasy” team are only exclamation points to the absurdity.

The thing that makes this lockout so ridiculous is that we’re arguing about less than 1 percent of a $9 billion pie.

The major hang-up is that the NFL Referees Association wants to retain their traditional pension programs while the NFL is seeking to replace them with 401(k)-style retirement plans. The NFL’s argument: many full-time league employees don’t receive traditional pensions, so why should 121 part-time officials get them?

Here’s what commissioner Roger Goodell told the Huffington Post last week: “About 10 percent of the country has [a defined pension program]. Yours truly doesn’t have that. It’s something that doesn’t really exist anymore and that I think is going away steadily.”

Hey, Roger, can I give you one reason why these refs should retain their pension plans? You can afford it.

There are few jobs in this country that are more thankless than the NFL referee position. These guys need to be up to speed on thousands of scenarios, they take five-hour tests every week and the only time their work receives attention is when they screw up.

NFL refs are part-time employees, but the pressure they work under is extraordinary. When was the last time you got booed by 60,000 people at work? Had a beer bottle thrown at your head? Received a death threat?

Last season, the average salary of an NFL official was $149,000 and that doesn’t seem out of line with the contributions they're making to a $9 billion product.  

Right now, the two sides are no more than $4 million apart annually, a drop in the bucket that amounts to $125,000 per club. Why wouldn’t the NFL provide integral employees and their families with a better standard of living when it’s well within their cost structure?

This seems to be about political ideology and breaking the union.

There's a strong anti-union movement in the country right now, which is contributing to the shift from pension to 401(k) plans.

The NFL isn’t the auto industry. It's survival doesn't require restructured employee benefits. The league’s pie is growing rapidly – revenues were $3.94 billion in 2000 and some are projecting them to reach $18 billion by 2016 – it should be giving more benefits to more employees, not less to less employees.

But former 49ers quarterback Steve Young is right: this staring contest could go on indefinitely because the NFL has inelastic demand. It doesn’t matter who’s refereeing the games or how outrageous the officiating is, we’re going to tune in and that’s where the league gets its leverage.

Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at paul.gackle@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @PGackle.