Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

05 Jun 2012

NFL Locks Out Referees

Could this be the start of a terrifying new planet where all officiating is done with electronics?

OK, probably not. Still, it's more than a little surprising to see the NFL playing hardball with the referees. It's not like their chunk of the pie is that big to begin with.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 05 Jun 2012

46 comments, Last at 11 Jun 2012, 5:43pm by Dean


by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 6:04pm

"Still, it's more than a little surprising to see the NFL playing hardball with the referees."

Yeah, it's a stunner. Not like the exact same thing didn't happen back in 2001.

by AnonymousA (not verified) :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 6:08pm

"It's not like their chunk of the pie is that big to begin with."

I'd always heard most refs also worked other jobs -- I assumed reffing simply wasn't enough to live on.

This article is one of many to mention that...and also to mention that starting refs make $78K and have a fixed-income pension. 10-year vets get $139K + pension.

And they work other jobs. What?

If you're making $79K/year for working one day a week for less than 20 weeks, you damn well better be spending the rest of your year studying, staying in shape, and focusing on your job. If you're pulling down six figures with a pension waiting for you and you're not giving 2000 hours a year, you're pretty much robbing someone. The idea that many refs spend five days a week doing something entirely different, and are now complaining that the raise the NFL offered them isn't big enough, is ludicrous. I do sympathize with them on the grandfathering of pensions issue, but let's be real -- these guys are not defenders of justice standing up against the big, bad NFL. They're not reffing out of the goodness of their hearts while working a real job to pay the bills. They're going to learn the same lesson that MLB umpires learned -- it's a lot easier to find officials than players, and if supply and demand are allowed to take effect compensation will plummet.

by tuluse :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 6:14pm

You set up a number of strawmen there. The worst being that no one has said that refs are "are defenders of justice standing up against the big, bad NFL."

by dbostedo :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 6:58pm

I don't think that was a strawman as much as it's simply the poster's opinion of the situation for the refs. He wasn't making a formal argument with a setup and knockdown, just listing his position based on what he sees.

I.e. he's not claiming or implying that someone said that they "are defenders of justice standing up against the big, bad NFL" and then knocking that down. Instead, he himself is stating that they are NOT "defenders of justice standing up against the big, bad NFL." It's explaining why he's taking the position that the refs might be out of line here.

by AnonymousA (not verified) :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 7:33pm

This was actually more of a generic attempt to imply that the union will find it hard to generate sympathy for its members in this situation. What was identified as a "straw man" is actually sarcastic hyperbole -- not only will the union have trouble claiming to be defending the little guy, it will have trouble claiming any sort of positive image.

I'd love to hear an argument that, without the union, referees would be abused, underpaid, and taken advantage of. It would have to be a pretty creative argument, I think.

by jsullivan03@gma... :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 4:00pm

I would argue that NFL referees are actually a very sensible group of people to have a labor union. A union exists to secure the best possible working conditions for its members, and the most vulnerable groups tend to be one of the following:

- low skilled workers that feel less comfortable advocating for themselves, or
- workers with skill sets that do not transfer easily to other industries

Football referees fall squarely into the second category, as one can't simply transfer these skills to a different industry. Following that line of logic, I would argue that it makes quite a bit of sense for NFL referees to have a labor union.

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 7:36pm

"Out of line" can be debated. "Out of luck" looks to be a certainty, though. I don't get this at all. The refs have zero leverage. With the increased use of replay, they're even easier to replace than they were previously. But, I suspect some of the refs see the writing on the wall. The NFL really wants to move towards full-time officials but guys like Ed Hochuli and others with lucrative careers outside football don't like the idea of that.

by cy (not verified) :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 8:26am

78k a year for being the best in the world at what you do in a multi-billion dollar business isn't that much when you look at it that way.

by dryheat :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 9:20am

Taken through the prism that they work 4 hours a week September through February, with the occasional meetings or workshops during the year, it seems like an entirely fair wage.

Game officials -- most of whom hold other jobs -- were offered a seven-year deal that included increases of between 5 percent and 11 percent in wages per year. First-year officials who made an average of $78,000 in 2011 would earn more than $165,000 by the end of the new agreement. A 10-year veteran in 2011 who made $139,000 would get more than $200,000 in 2018.

If true, we're misisng something. Officials getting pay increases from 45% to over 100% by the last year of the 7-year deal? That's unheard of. I hate to support the League, but unless there's something being unreported, this is a bad, bad, play by the officials.

by CraigoMc (not verified) :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 9:49am

"Taken through the prism that they work 4 hours a week September through February, with the occasional meetings or workshops during the year"

NFL referees average 40 hours of film study and travel alone each week.

by dcaslin :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 10:18am

"NFL referees average 40 hours of film study and travel alone each week."

Also, they get to be famous in a bad way if they screw up. I knew a guy who was a programmer who moonlit as a short order cook at a family restaurant 10 hours a week or so. Now imagine that if he screwed up someone's burger he'd run the very real risk of being mocked on the news for a few months and getting death threats. I imagine he'd request a somewhat higher wage at that point.

by Not Jimmy (not verified) :: Thu, 06/07/2012 - 8:52am

Hey - I do well over 40 hours a week of film study.

by dryheat :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 11:25am

Travel is what it is...so they take one round trip flight a week during the season.

As for the "film study", I would ask 1) How do we know they study film that much Monday through Saturday. I'd be shocked if they put the equivalent of an 7-8 hour day every day, and 2) Is it a requirement, or is it self-directed to help improve their skills? What I mean is that if I'm an immigration lawyer for a firm and I decide that it will help my job performance / make me more employeable to spend 5 hours a day learning Mandarin, I really couldn't go to my employer and demand a raise because I work 13 hours a day while being paid for 8.

It's a competitive business. An official should do all he can to keep your job, but in the end it's an investment in hisself, not part of his job description.

Of course, this assumes that I'm right, and that officials don't have mandated film study every day with their supervisor. Either way, I think it's an extremely fair wage for a part-time job. My guess is that the officials look at the billions of dollars NFL Enterprises brings in, and feel that they deserve a larger cut, as the on-field product wouldn't be as good without them. However, that's extremely short sighted, as the NFL could reach into the NCAA ranks for promising candidates, and by next season have them trained up to the NFL standard.

by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 2:54pm

40 hours a week is part time? How many hours are in your weeks?

by Deelron :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 3:23pm

After reading a book or two by NFL referees it's pretty obvious it's not really a part time job, it's more akin to a traditional school teacher's schedule. Just because they're not on the field doesn't mean they're not working on their craft (for better or worse for some officials) or at the minimum making sure they continue to meet the physical requirements.

by dryheat :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 3:30pm

Exactly. A bouncer might work 20 hours a week at the bar, and spent 20 hours a week working out and practicing mixed martial arts, but that doesn't mean the bar needs to pay him for 40 hour weeks. An office assistant might take a typing class for 3 hours a week at the community college in order to perform her duties better, but that isn't work time.

My Mom never got paid for time spent grading papers or planning lessons at home.

by Jerry :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 6:50pm

Presumably, your Mom's salary included the time spent grading papers or planning lessons at home, and the couple months off during the summer. Similarly, NFL officials' pay includes the time they spend reviewing film and brushing up on rules, the same way players' pay includes their prep time. The bouncer, OTOH, is probably paid by the hour, and isn't being compensated for whatever he does when he's mot at the bar. (A good Bouncers Union might be able to get barowners to pay for martial arts training....)

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 06/07/2012 - 8:43am

A good bouncer doesn't need martial arts.

Many bad bouncers do.

by dryheat :: Thu, 06/07/2012 - 10:36am

Unfortunately, most bar managers hire bad bouncers.

by dryheat :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 3:24pm

I'm calling BS on the NFL requiring officials to work 40 hours a week.

by Independent George :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 4:26pm

I would call it 'seasonal' work, rather than part-time.

by tgt2 (not verified) :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 12:51pm

Maybe it's the complete destruction of the pension fund, not just going forward, but for all officials.

by dryheat :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 1:49pm

I would agree, if that was true -- and it might be. A raise -- even a large one -- in exchange for the pension fund is a bad trade. But the NFL claims that it is not true, that the pension fund will be different, yet equal if not better -- and in fact is the same formula that is common in the NFL for employees.

I wouldn't put it past the league office to lie, but it seems uncharacteristic of Goodell/Aiello to lie to the media when it can be easily proven so. I don't think we'll have a definitive answer unless the entire proposal and counter-proposals are made public, but at this point, it seems the NFLRA are pointing their fingers at things that are reasonable and claiming that they are not.

by Independent George :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 4:25pm

I would argue the opposite - pension funds are promises of future payments which may or may not actually be possible at the time of retirement. More money now is more money now.

The NFL may be less likely to go bankrupt than, say, General Motors, but there's a nonzero chance that the league loses popularity (and profitability) to the point that the pension fund will have to take a significant haircut. Short of a government guarantee (which isn't even guaranteed anymore, given the state of general finances), pensions carry the same risks as a defined-contribution plan.

by AnonymousA (not verified) :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 11:49am

Who says these shmoes are the best in the world? You think the same amount of training/recruiting from pee-wee on up is done for refs as for players? Is that why high school games are reffed by high schoolers, with the best refs recruited by top programs? What skills are required for reffing? Knowing the rules, good vision, being in good shape, and quick decision making?

I bet the top 60 QBs in the NFL could all, within a few months, become substantially better refs than any current ref -- more calls caught, more calls made correctly, etc. Every single one of them. In an off-season. But of course they wouldn't. Why? Way more money in being a 1st/2nd string QB. And why is that?

Because it's WAY DAMN HARDER.

This is, by the way, the same argument the baseball umps made -- "best in class players deserve best in class umps, and because we are their umps, we are best in class! Just TRY to replace us!" Sadly, the education in logical deduction they subsequently received does not qualify them for much in the way of employment...

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 7:23pm

"Could this be the start of a terrifying new planet where all officiating is done with electronics?"

I hope not. The refs in Madden blow replays all the time. Bastards never call holding, either.

by Shattenjager :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 7:28pm

"Could this be the start of a terrifying new planet where all officiating is done with electronics?"

I hope that by "terrifying" you meant "totally awesome."

by Insancipitory :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 7:57pm

The state of officiating is and has practically always been such that I've often thought that a small group of mathmaticians could probably design a similarly effective system where players call their own fouls. NFL officals have sucked ass forever. I think the last game that I thought "Wow, that was well officiated" was something like 2004 or 2005 where the Buccaneers hosted the Redskins, and there were a number of difficult calls that I thought Mike Carry and his crew got right everytime.

The only way NFL officiating could be worse is if they were like NBA officals who commonly ignore rules and are occasionally caught fixing games. As they are I'm left with the impression that NFL officials aren't even particularly interested in appearing conciencious, much less being so.

by tuluse :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 8:38pm

Most games I watch I'm left feeling like the refs did a fine job. I would say there is at most 2 games a week that I see where I see badly blown or missed calls.

by Joe T. :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 9:54pm

Hey, Alstott was down before the goal line in that game. :)

by justanothersteve :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:27pm

I only remember the Testaverde TD against Seattle.

by jebmak :: Fri, 06/08/2012 - 9:33am

I love this comment.

by Jerry :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 4:00am

I think NFL officiating is like Winston Churchill's comment on democracy: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

These are human beings trying to make judgment calls in real time, and while they're not perfect, they're probably better than whoever else is out there. It's easy to point out what they do wrong, and nobody's gonna have sympathy for them if they're locked out, but I can't imagine that replacements will be an improvement.

by White Rose Duelist :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 8:24am

Exactly. Selection bias is at work here. We only notice bad officiating because good officiating is practically invisible.

The only officiating that can even be close to as bad as the NBA is international soccer. NFL officials make mistakes, sometimes on big plays, but I can't imagine anyone truly believing they are biased.

by LionInAZ :: Sat, 06/09/2012 - 12:12am

Not to mention that many of the biggest critics of the referees are often drunk while they're watching them.

by White Rose Duelist :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 8:21am

ROBO-UMPIRE never misses a holding call. The typical NFL game lasts 13 hours because unpenalized snaps are rare.

by Mello :: Thu, 06/07/2012 - 5:22pm

Then the players learn they can't hold and the games go back to normal. Would be better than now where the refs seemingly call holding on a whim.

by Brent Hutto (not verified) :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 8:57am

I watched a Rugby game on television in England one time. There was some sort of misbehavior which apparently had to do with either starting to push and shove before the whistle or keeping on pushing and shoving after the whistle (can't say for sure, there's so much pushing and shoving I couldn't follow what the heck was happening).

Anyway, the head referee was mic'd and he called over one player from each team. He said something like "There has been some [whatever you call the foul] and both your names were overheard. If there's any more of this warnings will be issued".

Man, what a polite league. After repeatedly "overhearing" that these guys were breaking the rules he warns them that if they keep on they'll receive a warning. Do you think that might work in the NFL? Maybe they could import some of those chaps wearing shorts and keep the whole thing on a gentlemanly basis...

by Guido Merkens :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 9:14am

The threat of a warning is much more serious when the ref has the ability to send you off the field (and make your team play shorthanded) for 10 minutes, as they do in rugby. In addition, rugby refs can award penalties for complaining about calls (sort of like a technical foul in basketball).

by tuluse :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 12:04pm

There is actually a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct if you verbally assault an NFL ref. This happened somewhat famously in the Ravens-Patriots game in 2007.

by Floyd (not verified) :: Thu, 06/07/2012 - 2:24pm

And in a Lions-Ravens game as well. 2005 I think. Mike Carey's infamous "He had malice in his heart" call when he threw out Terrell Suggs.

by CaffeineMan :: Mon, 06/11/2012 - 2:47pm

So do you get suspended for the next game as well, if you're giving him the business with malice in your heart?

by Dean :: Mon, 06/11/2012 - 5:43pm

I think then you're Orlando Brown.

by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 3:06pm

Not sure about the details of this one, couldn't really care less about it. Though I do get the feeling that Goodell really likes locking people out.

by andrew :: Wed, 06/06/2012 - 6:27pm

.... removed to be safe

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 06/07/2012 - 6:47am

In my experience you have to have a certain personality type to want to referee any sports match. I doubt any of them began doing it for the money. I have to say that I'm amazed by the salaries being paid - for some reason I imagined it to be about $500 per game plus expenses thrown in which is why they mostly have other jobs.

Given that kind of salary and career progression, I'd be tempted to tell my kids to set their hearts on becoming NFL referees particularly if there's a good pension off the back of it.