3-week study shows refereeing NFL games is harder than previously suspected

The professional referees of the NFL have been on lockout due to a dispute over salary and benefits.  (Like most labor disputes these days, it???s really more about job security and benefits than salary.)  NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decided to handle the situation by instituting ???Anybody Can Be A Ref??? days, in which random fans are invited to come onto the field and call the plays for a game.  Prior knowledge of the rules of football is not required.

Well, okay, it only seems like that???s how the infamous Replacement Refs are being recruited.  The replacements have filled the first three weeks of the football season with an astonishing circus of blown calls and weird behavior, including one RR who tossed a hat onto the field, causing a Dallas Cowboys player to slip during a play.  Kicks that don???t actually go through the uprights are ruled as field goals.  The ensuing pandemonium caused legendary New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick to come fairly close to assaulting one of the Replacement Referees.  That sort of thing does not happen in professional football.

Monday night brought the final straw, as an astonished nation watched a Green Bay Packers interception in the end zone ruled as a touchdown for the Seattle Seahawks instead, throwing the game to Seattle.  The resulting pandemonium was so intense that the teams spent ten minutes off the field, waiting for things to calm down, before returning for the extra point.  (I should note that I???ve seen a few online football fans poring over the footage and arguing that the call was defensible.  They are clearly in a very small minority.  Amateur football lawyers, feel free to hash this out in the comments.)

???These games are a joke,??? said Hall of Famer Troy Aikman via Twitter.  Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes said of the replacements, ???Foot Locker called, and they???re needed back at work.???  (Foot Locker is a shoe store where the sales staff dresses in referee costumes.)  A fair number of other Tweeters were considerably more stern in their criticism, calling for the lynching of Commissioner Goodell.

The final irony of the situation is that TV ratings and attendance are reportedly up.  Everyone is watching for the next crazy referee call.  It???s like a NASCAR race, except you???re waiting for the officials to crash and burn.

Of course, that surge of interest won???t last.  Pro football has enormously complex rules, and while it certainly had its share of debatable calls in the past, a general aura of integrity allows fans to get excited by victories measured in inches and seconds.  Interest will swiftly wane if the whole affair becomes a crap shoot, not to mention the mounting suspicion that the Replacement Refs could be throwing games on purpose.  Players will begin changing their strategy to account for the official chaos.  And there was already pressure mounting against football over injuries.  This was not a good moment for the sport to have a crisis of legitimacy.

Bloomberg Businessweek offers a concise breakdown of the dispute between the professional referees and the NFL, which resembles another high-profile labor dispute recently settled in Chicago:

However trifling in a financial sense, the lockout reflects a larger trend in the American workplace. The NFL and the NFLRA are wrestling over the same issues that dominated America???s other widely watched labor dispute: the Chicago teachers strike. While most accounts have focused on the NFL???s desire to do away with the NFLRA???s pension plan as the central sticking point in negotiations, a less talked-about, but equally contentious, issue is pay for performance. The NFL wants to increase the number of officials to 141, creating a bench of trained referees who could be brought in to give other referees a break, but also to replace those referees who the league feels have been blowing calls. A league spokesman said, ???If a guy is underperforming, we could take a guy and sit him down for a while and bring someone else up.???

NFL officials make an average of $149,000 per year, and the league has suggested annual 7 percent increases that would raise the regular salary to $189,000 by 2018. While that???s good money for a part-time gig, NFL referees, like players, are paid by the game. If an official misses a few games because of a few bad calls, that can cut into compensation. And the NFLRA, like the Chicago Teachers Union, doesn???t want its members??? compensation subject to performance reviews.

The referees, like those striking Chicago teachers, complain that their performance will be judged by what they view as highly subjective standards, which could lead to financial disadvantages or termination.  Striking teachers complained that it was unfair to hold them accountable for the poor academic performance of inner-city kids, while teachers with better-performing student bodies would find it much easier to look good on standardized evaluations.  NFL referees fear that their performance would be second-guessed by what they view as occasionally arbitrary standards.

The pension dispute is no small potatoes either.  The head of the referees??? union, Tim Millis, explained in an open letter, ???Every current NFL official was hired by the NFL with the promise of a defined-benefit pension package.  All of these officials and their families have made important life-planning decisions based on this benefit promise.  The NFL now wants to break the promise by eliminating that benefit; instead, turning to an inferior defined-contribution plan. I call that plan inferior because the League???s offer would reduce their funding obligation for the plan by some 60%, and at the same time transfer long-term investment risk to the individuals.???

Other NFL employees, and indeed much of the private sector, have been moving toward those ???inferior defined-contribution plans,??? because traditional pensions build over time into gigantic unfunded liabilities that companies might not be able to meet.  Most of the big public-sector financial crises rocking city and state governments features such huge defined-benefit liability crises, as the accumulated weight of pension commitments made during flush years (or, at least, years when no one was terribly worried about budget deficits) built into absurdly unsustainable obligations.

Of course, the NFL is a booming business that raked in something like $9 billion last year, and the compensation offered to its players is legendary in its excess, so the chances that referee pensions will crush its budgets are slim.  And no one, working in any job, can be expected to greet perceived reductions in benefits or compensation with glee.  Maybe the only way to make this transition will be for the NFL to keep existing referees on the old plan, while hiring new refs with the understanding that their compensation will include defined-contribution retirement plans.  Hopefully they will continue to screen those applicants carefully for judgment and knowledge of football rules.  The first three weeks of the 2012 season will provide them with a terrific orientation video for new employees.