In Defense of the Replacement Referees in the NFL

Is it me, or does it seem like every professional sports league in America flirts with locking out more often these days than ever? Last year, executives at ESPN nearly had a stroke when the biggest professional sports operation in the history of the universe — the National Football League — threatened to sit out the 2011-12 season (because, after all, what would they possibly do to fill the air if NFL Live couldn’t function anymore?). The NBA actually did loose a few games last season because of labor stoppage, though after LeBron James finally got that monkey-turned-elephant off his back by winning his first NBA title with the Miami Heat in June, the memory of the season not beginning until December didn’t only become distant, but it’s also become practically non-existent. The NHL, meanwhile, announced last week that a lock-out has officially begun, thus making every fan of hockey wonder exactly what goes on in the league’s corporate offices on a daily basis, considering how it feels like just yesterday that the league lost an entire season to the same issue.

And now there’s the single most ignored labor dispute in the history of professional sports: the NFL referees lockout situation that currently forces American football games to be decided by some guy who delivers pizzas on weekdays and another four who cook them. For those of you who may not know what all the fuss is about, let me do my best to explain … that no one else is entirely sure, either. Cody Willard, a writer at Marketwatch, of all places, did a pretty good job last Thursday, though, when he broke the problem down to its simplest form.

“I did a little research on the NFL referee dispute. It’s not a dispute and definitely NOT A STRIKE, but an outright lockout — which means that the NFL has reneged on a long-term CONTRACT with the NFL Referee Union and has said if you won’t renegotiate with lower pay and benefits, you are not allowed to return to work and we will not honor that contract,” Willard wrote. “The value of those benefits that the NFL no longer wants to pay its referees, even though it’s in their contract, is worth probably a few hundred million dollars in future pension funding by the NFL, which equates down to about $10 million to 20 million a year right now that the NFL doesn’t want to pay their 180 referees.” (“Cody Willard: How to trade Apple options at the $700 set up”, 19 September 2012)

So, what’s the solution? Naturally, the league thought it would be smart to hire a collection of Papa John’s managers, send them out on the field and hope for the best. This approach, for those of you who either don’t care about sports or don’t have the time to think about … a sport’s referees, of all things … has been widely criticized through the NFL’s first three weeks of the season. Don’t believe me?

“If you watched the Monday Night Football game between the Broncos and Falcons, you saw replacement refs who seemed to be working from their own top-secret rule book,”’s Michael Rosenberg wrote in the wake of week two’s Monday night contest. “You saw defensive pass interference that was not interference or even particularly defensive. You saw holding that was not holding, unless the offensive lineman had a third arm that only the refs could see.” (“NFL making a mistake entrusting games to replacement officials”, by Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated, 18 September 2012)

Even The Christian Science Monitor took some time to stop writing about important things to address the issue. 

“Week 2 saw the replacements make a string of noticeable and time-consuming errors, including blown and reversed calls, poor management of games where player tempers spiraled out of control, and misapplication of the rules — all of which noticeably detracted from the natural rhythm of the game,” Patrik Jonsson wrote. “The NFL, which experimented with replacement players during the 1987 lockout, had high hopes that fans wouldn’t notice much difference with replacement referees this year. But the comedy of errors Sunday and Monday brought the refereeing lockout to the forefront, raising the reputations — and bargaining leverage — of the regular referees.” (“NFL replacement refs: admirable effort or unacceptable incompetence?”, by Patrik Jonsson, 18 September 2012)

And this isn’t even the beginning. Anyone who follows the sport saw how the replacements gave the Seattle Seahawks an extra timeout during week one, subsequently putting the contest’s outcome in question, even though it was clear the Arizona Cardinals were on their way to victory (fortunately for the replacements, the red birds did eventually walk away with the win, anyway). Then, there’s the tale of how one zebra was booted from a game he was supposed to work after it was revealed that he was a New Orleans Saints fan. That wouldn’t have been a problem … if he wasn’t scheduled to officiate a game in which the Saints were competing. And, maybe most memorable of all, who can forget about LeSean McCoy relaying the story about how one replacement ref noted how he needed the running back to have a good game for his own fantasy football purposes?

Now, that’s the stuff of legend. 

But even with all these missteps and criticisms considered, one has to wonder; will these refs forever be given the short side of the stick only because we all know that they were hired as replacements to begin with? Think about it: The notion of refereeing anything — from a middle school basketball game to a World Cup final — has forever been (and will forever be) under an enormously critical eye that most always never grants the subject any credit whatsoever. I mean, let’s be honest here. The art of officiating a professional sports contest is one of the top three thankless jobs in the world, right next to “Press Secretary for the President of the United States of America” and “Cleaning Lady”. 

So, let’s pretend for a minute that this whole labor dispute magically went unpublicized and we were under the impression that these were the same referees who have held jobs as NFL officials in the past. Would these missteps be nearly as big an issue? Or would they all merely lead to the same old conversations had every year, by every fan, in every city that typically goes something like this: 

Fan No. 1: (Holding a light beer) “Hey, did you see how the refs screwed us this week?”

Fan No. 2: (Holding two light beers) “I know, man! It’s total bullshit. It’s like they wanted us to lose.”

Jason Whitlock, the Fox Sports scribe who is never shy about being contrarian, took the argument a step further last week when he suggested that some critics, commentators, players and officials may all be taking advantage of a far too easy target.

“The No. 1 goal for a replacement ref is to get out of the game without being the story,” he wrote in his NFL Truths column. “This is the top priority because the replacement refs are not stupid. You have broadcasters and journalists who wouldn’t dare say a negative word about a coach, player or executive taking potshots at the disposable refs. This is an unprecedented, no-risk chance to talk tough. The replacement refs are under unbelievable public scrutiny. … NFL stadiums on game days are highways with no cops. Everybody is going 20 mph over the speed limit. Rather than vilify the replacement refs, you should feel sorry for them. They’re substitute teachers working in a school in which the parents (coaches) are telling the students to break the rules.” (“Coaches bullying replacement refs”, 19 September 2012)

Now, does this argument justify a group of officials granting a team an extra timeout in the final minutes of an actual regular season game? Of course not. But does Whitlock have a point when he claims that far too many people are taking this one opportunity to kick a bunch of beleaguered guys when they happen to be at their most frail? 

I think so.

Plus, remember: This is a game, for God’s sake. A simple, athletic, sometimes-violent game. This isn’t foreign policy or crumbling financial systems that we are talking about here. Football is a sport. It’s not life or death.

The action of refereeing an athletic contest is as subjective an action as one could find. Yes, there are rules that were made to be followed, but the interpretations of those rules will forever differ between two human beings, as long as human beings are involved in this equation (sorry, but that’s sort of the thing about being human — we all have faults). So, while there have admittedly been a few head-scratching moments from this crop of officials so far this season, it’s fairly safe to say that there will always be — and have forever been — a few head-scratching moments during any three week-stretch of football, past, present, or future.

More compelling is the fact that this conundrum has actually even led to a few positive outcomes. For one, Shannon Eastin, a MEAC college ref with 16 years of experience under her belt, became the first woman to officiate an NFL game when she took the sidelines for the Detroit Lions/St. Louis Rams match-up in week one. And as USA Today‘s Michael Hiestand reported last week, the referee lockout has had virtually no negative effect on the prized and dominant television ratings the league has worked so hard to achieve. In fact, this entire B-story to the 2012-13 season has created a little bit of buzz within the common American football fan, as the ratings through the first two weeks were slightly up from a year before. (“NFL ratings bulletproof even with replacement refs?”, 19 September 2012)

“Officiating is never perfect,” the league said in a statement last week. “The current officials have made great strides and are performing admirably.”

It’s hard to argue against the notion that these guys (and a woman, mind you) are doing the best they can, especially considering how some of them decided to step from the kiddy pool into the deep end without even looking for Swimmies. It’s not easy stuff, having to dissect — and subsequently rule upon — 22 monsters aiming to be as barbarically physical as 22 monsters can be without getting one’s body broken or head smashed in. Or, as Professor McCann of Vermont Law School told Jonsson, “If you or I had to do it tomorrow, we’d be a disaster.”

So, how about we lay off these replacement refs. They’ve all been plucked from relative obscurity (or the nearest Pizza Hut) and they deserve a bit of a break. Actually, the true failures in this situation lie within the people squabbling over millions of dollars and pension plans, anyway. It’s because of no fault to the replacements that the leaders of the most popular sport in America and the people who watch over the most popular sport in America on a week-to-week basis can’t play nice. All these guys wanted to do was cross “referee a regular season NFL game” off their Bucket Lists. And who can really blame them for taking full advantage of that opportunity, even if some weren’t entirely qualified to do so?

Besides, if you thought you might be able to squeeze a few extra fantasy points out of a Philadelphia Eagles running back by giving him an old-fashioned “Go get ’em, Tiger” before kickoff … wouldn’t you be sure to adjust your rosters accordingly?