NFL: Nickel-and-dime pay row turns a $9bn sport into a laughing stock

Top referees are locked out and replacements are wrecking games with comically incorrect calls


Forget the deficit, Iran's nuclear ambitions and the mayhem in the Middle East. The real crisis gripping the US is the National Football League's lockout of referees, and their replacement by unqualified officials, whose botched calls, missed penalties and general floundering are turning America's favourite pro sport into a national laughing stock.

The trouble began in early June, a seemingly minor argument over pay and pensions between the referees' union and the owners of the 32-team NFL. But it came to a head on Monday night as a comically incorrect call, deeming a clear end-zone interception a touchdown, handed the Seattle Seahawks an utterly undeserved last-gasp 14-12 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

At that moment, simmering dissatisfaction became national outrage. Cyberspace lit up with indignation – "These games are a joke," tweeted the Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman. Las Vegas gamblers who had bet on a Green Bay win found themselves $300m (£186m) out, while the ESPN sports network summed up the fiasco with the headline "Clueless in Seattle".

The politicians weighed in, too. Bill Clinton took time off from greeting presidential candidates at the annual meeting of his philanthropic foundation in New York to opine that: "I would not have called that last Green Bay/Seattle play the way they did." Barack Obama was more trenchant. The result was "terrible", he told ABC, "I've been saying for months, we've got to get our refs back."

Such words have put pressure on the NFL and on Tuesday they opened talks with the referees' union. Last night ESPN reported that "an agreement in principle is at hand," however how long it is until the matter is truly resolved it anyone's guess.

Labour disputes are, of course, nothing new in the litigious universe of US major league sports. A lockout cost the National Basketball Association a fifth of the 2011-12 regular season. The NFL itself narrowly averted a similar shutdown last year, while National Hockey League owners are embroiled in yet another argument with players. A 10-day-old lockout could cost part, even all, of the upcoming season – just eight years after the entire 2004-05 season was lost to a similar dispute.

Indeed, with unions in decline across conventional manufacturing and services, pro sport is emerging as a last redoubt of the American labour movement. Each major league is governed by a multi-year framework contract between owners (mostly billionaires) and the union representing the players (mostly millionaires).

Almost every time one comes up for renewal, there is talk of a lockout (by the former) or a strike (by the latter). The argument, invariably, is over money: more exactly, how it will be divided between the two sides. Hence arcane bargaining over salary caps, and revenue distribution. Sometimes owners prevail; sometimes, as in the baseball stoppage that wiped out the 1994 World Series, the players do.

In pure dollar terms, however, the NFL referees' dispute is strictly minor league. There are just 119 "zebras" (so named after their black-and-white striped shirts), earning up to $100,000 annually – not bad considering the regular season consists of just 16 games. They want a modest pay increase, and retention of their current fixed final pension schemes, which owners want to replace with contributions to a retirement savings account.

For the behemoth that is the NFL, whose $9bn of revenues make it the world's richest sports league, the referees' claim is – as Americans would say – "nickel-and-dime" stuff. Settling it would cost a few million dollars at most. The owners see sport as a lucrative business, and gamble that demand for football is inelastic – and thus far they have been vindicated by the bottom line. Despite the dismal refereeing, television ratings are higher than ever, while live game attendances are holding up.

But for how much longer? With its complex and ponderous rulebook, the NFL requires a lot of referees: seven per game, in fact. For three straight weeks the shortcomings of the replacements, most of whom have officiated only at high school or second-tier college games, have been on display.



Players and coaches are becoming more undisciplined and touchline disputes are multiplying as, more ominously, are dangerous hits on the field. Even before the lockout of the regular referees, worries about the violence inherent in the sport had been growing, while the average fan's tolerance of ever-climbing ticket and concession prices is surely not infinite. Now the sport's basic integrity is at stake. "This is affecting absolutely the competitive landscape of the NFL, and it brings it down," said Steve Young, the great 49ers quarterback, now an analyst for ESPN's Monday Night Football, the single most watched show on all cable TV.

In the meantime, public sympathy has turned overwhelmingly in favour of the regular referees and against the owners; calls for a player boycott are growing. The debacle in Seattle will surely be the tipping point that brings owners to their senses. The only question is, when.

Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower