The refs are back! After three weeks of bizarre rulings, controversy, and near player revolt, the NFL ended the referee lockout this week. The regular officials came back just in time for Thursday night's game between the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. The regular refs returned as heroes — until they made their first blown call. Robert Siegel talks to sportswriter Stefan Fatsis.
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Last night, football fans heard a rare sound - fans cheering referees. The National Football League's real refs returned to the field in Baltimore, after three weeks of turmoil and embarrassment in America's richest and most popular professional sport. Sports writer Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Hi, Stefan.
STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: And President Obama's press secretary pronounced the end of the lockout of the NFL's unionized referees, a great day for America. We don't have those every week. There's a lot of love here for people that fans will resume screaming at in short order.
That's also pretty educational I think. Because with most things in sports, most people have no idea how difficult and complex what happens on a field actually is, and how much work goes into it. These referees in the NFL have rule books and case books that, added up, consist of 190,000 words. The sad takeaway though for me here is that this was avoidable. The NFL could have let the regular officials work during the contract talks. Instead, it locked them out, allowed three-sixteenths of its season to be compromised by grossly inexperienced subs. And, after the infamous finish to Monday night's game between Seattle and Green Bay, the NFL was a national punch line.
Is it safe to say that that debacle pushed the NFL and the referees union to reach a deal in time for a crew to assemble for the game last night?
FATSIS: Yeah, I think it did. Yeah, the Twitter post by a Packer's lineman named T.J. Lang, right after Monday's game, bleep it NFL, fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs. That was the second most re-tweeted tweet ever - of all tweets. The NFL then looked at its schedule and saw that Green Bay would be hosting New Orleans this Sunday. So you had these angry tweeting Packers, you had their star quarterback Aaron Rodgers talking with open contempt about the league. You had New Orleans' quarterback, Drew Brees, a union leader, who signed a letter to owners saying the replacement refs had led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity. The conflict was only escalating.
SIEGEL: Well, the refs are voting on the proposed settlement today and tomorrow. Did they gain some leverage thanks to what happened this week?
FATSIS: Yeah, definitely. How much, only the negotiators know. But both sides wound up making concessions. The refs got a big pay increase, a longer deal, eight years, than was originally offered. The NFL got the right to hire a bench of refs who can replace underperforming ones. The sticking point was retirement benefits. The NFL wanted, as many businesses do, to replace the refs defined benefit plan - a pension - with a defined contribution plan, a 401K. And that will happen over time. Ultimately, though, this wasn't financial. The referee benefits weren't ever going to cripple the NFL. As one team owner told the Wall Street Journal this week, the fight was ideological. The NFL was big and powerful and when it comes to its employees, it's controlling. And this time it got carried away and damaged itself as a result.
SIEGEL: But lockouts and strikes come and go in sports and the fans come back. Is there really any real lasting damage here?
You know, time will tell. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized yesterday for having to put fans through what happened. But the league chose to put fans through this. It was willing to risk the integrity of its games to make a small business point. And it did so at time of mounting lawsuits by former NFL players over brain injuries. The background conversation about the NFL was increasingly negative. And that doesn't mean that attendance or TV ratings are going to go down. But you don't want a fan base that feels bad about the sport or the league. That's not a good long-term plan.
OK, thanks Stefan.
FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis is the author of "A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL" and he joins us Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.