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

Washington

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.

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