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Saving The Game: Botched Calls And Legitimacy In The NFL

As a Seattle Seahawks fan living in Washington, D.C., I was excited for my team’s nationally televised Monday night game against the Green Bay Packers. Since I spend most of my year living far away from Seattle, I very rarely get the chance to watch Seahawks regular season games, unless they are playing a nearby regional team.

Like many other people who watched the game, I could not believe what I was seeing when they replayed the last play. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a last second pass into the end zone towards Golden Tate. The pass was initially intercepted by Green Bay’s M.D. Jennings, while Tate wrestled him for possession of the ball. The call was ruled as a simultaneous possession of the ball and the touchdown was given to Seattle, giving them the win over Green Bay. While I will always like watching the Seahawks win, seeing them win in such a bogus fashion strips all the enjoyment out of watching the game.

Unfortunately, this is not the only isolated incident of botched calls this season.

The Sunday before the Green Bay/Seattle game saw its share of suspicious refereeing. During the New England/Baltimore game, a field goal kick at the end of the fourth quarter that appeared to barely miss the goal on the right was called good, giving Baltimore the win. On the same day during overtime between Detroit and Tennessee, a penalty called on Detroit that should have resulted in a 15 yard loss was instead called as a 27 yard loss, which helped Tennessee win the game.

So what is behind the bad calls?

The NFL was negotiating contract agreements with the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA). The big issue being negotiated between the NFL and the NFLRA centered around the referee’s retirement plan and pay. The NFL is hoping to switch from a pension to a 401k plan, which the NFLRA is proposing that only new officials get while veterans stick with their old pension plans. The NFL offered pay increases for referees from $149,000 to $189,000 by 2018. The NFLRA asked for more pay (the amount had not been disclosed) based upon criteria between part/full time pay and regular/post-season play.

When negotiations between the NFL and the NFLRA were not settled in time, replacement officials were hired to referee the games. Since the Green Bay/Seattle game, news of the incompetency of the replacement referees has come to light. Lance Easley, the ref who called the now infamous interception touchdown for Seattle, was a California banker who according to his trainer was not ready to referee in an NFL game. More embarrassing to the NFL is that Mitch Mortaza, the commissioner of the Lingerie Football League (LFL), has stated that he noticed former referees who were fired from LFL for incompetent officiating who are now acting as replacement refs in the NFL.

It is difficult to assign definitive good and bad guy roles to either party involved in these negotiations, especially since no one looks particularly good at all in this debacle. While Roger Goodell and the NFL do deserve blame for not properly vetting or training these replacement refs, one should not blame them for not wanting to halt what is the most successful sports league in the United States, which is generates $9 billion in revenue per year. And while it is a legitimate concern of veteran refs in the NFLRA to worry about what could happen to the retirement plans they have been playing into for years, it is hard to appear sympathetic when their current part-time wage is $149,000 when the average U.S. household income right now is $50,054.

Commenting on the dispute, Daniel Hanson of the American Enterprise Institute was right when he said that unions are essentially cartels, organizations that have the power to organize and withhold commodities from the market. In a truly free market, salaries and benefits would be determined by consumers buying NFL products, not by an organization that has an incentive to demand benefits above market value. Of course, the NFL itself is also a cartel, complicating matters.

Late at night, the NFL and the NFLRA finally reached a contract agreement and the official refs will begin work immediately. The contract is an eight-year agreement that guarantees pay raises up to $205,000 by 2019 and that current officials can keep their old pension plan. The contract also allows the NFL to hire full-time officials starting at the 2013 season. Since both sides have come to an agreement on the issues most important to them, it looks like this dispute has been resolved, for now.

Even with the dispute seemingly resolved, it is obvious that the NFL has a serious integrity problem on their hands. When the rules of the game are not adequately enforced, then the game ultimately becomes meaningless. Like many others out there, I am glad to see that an agreement between the NFL and NFLRA was reached quickly. I hope that the agreement that was reached will benefit both organizations and that a sense of legitimacy returns to NFL games.

And hopefully, I will be able to enjoy another Seahawks win that is actually earned.