The National Football League is the most popular sport in America. But this year, a close second is complaining about NFL replacement referees. Everyone wants them gone, but how bad are they and when are the real refs coming back? Robert Siegel talks to Mike Pesca.
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We Googled the phrase: It's difficult to replace. And auto-complete suggested a couple things people clearly find difficult to replace: a radiator, a garbage disposal, a catalytic converter. Well, how about an NFL official? For three weeks now, NFL games have been officiated by replacement refs, due to a labor dispute, and things have been getting ugly.
For more, we're joined by NPR's Mike Pesca. Hi, Mike.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hi.
SIEGEL: Mike, we've been hearing since the start of the season to replacement refs aren't up to the job. Is there any metric of how different the season is this year without regular officials?
PESCA: Right. So aside from the subjective which has everyone whose team lost, and there were critical referee calls, up in arms. But if you want to look at sheer numbers, in week three of 2011, games were taking a little over three hours. Week three of this year, they've been pushed up to three and a quarter hours.
In fact, this Sunday, only one game lasted less than three hours. You begin to feel the drag as a viewer. The administration of these games - it's not just knowing the rules, it's knowing the rules in a quick and efficient manner and that really does seem to be lacking.
SIEGEL: Well now, remind us what the issues are that are keeping the regular referees locked out.
PESCA: It's not money per se, or I should say, it's not salary. Referees get an average of about $150,000 a year. But like so many businesses, pensions are on the line. The NFL wants to move to sort of a 401(k) plan. The referees want to keep their regular old pension. There are issues with moving officials to full-time. They're technically part-time officials.
If the league were to pay three million this year, they could bridge the gap. That's about the difference. That's $100,000 a team, that won't buy labor peace for year after year after year, but it's a relatively little amount of money involved considering the NFL is a $9.5 billion business.
SIEGEL: Now it has been suggested that the league's breaking point will come when a game is clearly won or lost based on a bad call. So the question is, there have been a lot of bad calls, has that actually happened? Has it decided the result of a game?
PESCA: Well, you know, members of the Patriots say it had. They will say and Brandon Spikes tweeted that we were victimized by these refs who - actually he said zebras - who need to go back to Foot Locker. And then in subsequent tweets he said: Refs? Who said anything about refs? I was talking about zebras.
But let's look to last - let's look to Sunday's Detroit-Tennessee game. The referees misplaced the ball in overtime. They simply marked off a penalty from the wrong spot. And they gave Tennessee 12 yards. This was 12 yards on the drive that resulted in the only points in overtime. So, yeah, that comes pretty close to a blunder really affecting the outcome of the game. And, of course, if you want to take into account all the subjective calls, there seem to be a lot of them and a lot of them that are wrong.
SIEGEL: So why is the NFL digging in so deep on this? Why?
PESCA: Yeah. You know, the NFL says, hey, no one watches these games for the referees. I would suggest another construction - I would say everyone watches the games not to notice the referees. And now that we're noticing the referees, it does hinder the enjoyment of the game. But this is what the NFL is banking on - the ratings don't show that. And it seems like the NFL is all but a bullet proof concept. I'd perhaps challenge the league in its negotiations. How much do you want to bet on that? It's like I said, a relative pittance separating the referees and a contract.
But there's one other thing to consider and this was kind of put in my ear by Gabe Feldman who runs Tulane's law program. His theory is that the NFL wants to be seen as really abstinent on this because what the NFL wants to do, in his opinion, is to show that it has a steel backbone because it doesn't really care about the referee negotiation. It cares about the big negotiation with players.
And if they seem implacable in the face of all this criticism that they're getting with the referees, maybe they'll be taken more seriously by the players. I don't know, but it does seem to be one of the few plausible explanations for why a deal is not getting done.
SIEGEL: Thanks, Mike.
PESCA: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR sports correspondent, Mike Pesca.
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