NFL vs. NFLRA: Rules of the Replacement Refs

Matthew Greenberg, Sports Editor

Photo By John Lok of AP


Anyone watching football this season is well-versed in the antics taking place around the league. Coaches are shouting and trying to intimidate officials. Players are taking cheap shots at each other. Penalties are being missed, miscounted, misused, and at times, it seems they are plainly being invented. So what’s the cause of the ruckus?

In June of this year, the NFL locked out the members of the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) over contract disputes. Some of the key topics on the debate platform include: The NFL wanting to rescind an apparent guarantee made to current league officials of a defined benefit pension package. The NFL also wants all members of the NFLRA to become full-time employees of the NFL. They are currently part-time employees, and many of these officials work other jobs during the NFL season and do not wish to lose this source of income. Also, the NFL wants to increase the number of officiating crews, which would thereby limit the amount of games per year current officials would be assigned. Finally, The NFLRA wants substantial increases to their pay grades.

While there are other issues at play in this debate, the argument over the pensions is at the forefront.  Mike Florio of NBC Sports writes that, “In an open letter written by NFLRA executive director Tim Millis, the locked-out officials urge the NFL to compromise on the pension issue by continuing to provide all current officials with a defined benefit pension plan (which puts the investment risk on the employer), and converting all new officials to a defined contribution pension plan (which puts the investment risk on the employee).” Basically, if the NFL is going to increase the ranks of referees, the current officials want their money guaranteed and couldn’t care less about the new hires.

The NFL and NFLRA have met with each other on multiple occasions to discuss the issues at hand, with little ground being gained by either side. Currently, the NFL has put crews of replacement officials in place to take over the officiating responsibilities of all NFL games. While the locked-out officials remain as such, these replacement refs have an itinerary mapped out through week five of the regular season.

The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) has sent a letter to the NFL demanding the return of the locked-out officials, citing player safety as their primary concern. The NFL has maintained their stance that the replacement refs are doing a fine job of officiating, and that there is no overwhelming concern for player safety based on the performance level these crews are providing.

Unfortunately, this is false. There have already been multiple cases of players getting injured and no penalties being called, but the most severe example would be in the week three matchup of the Oakland Raiders against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey was injured while attempting to catch a pass in the end zone when Steelers safety Ryan Mundy delivered a debilitating shot to Heyward-Bey’s head.

With the replacement refs in place, the officiating has been so inconsistent that players are taking advantage of the refs’ inexperience and inability to control the game. The head referee in the San Francisco 49ers versus the Minnesota Vikings matchup stated after the game that he made some drastic mistakes during the game, admitting that he didn’t know the rules.

Nothing should be more scrutinized than the debacle that ended the Monday night matchup of the Green Bay Packers against the Seattle Seahawks. It finally happened: a wrong call by the replacement refs cost a winning team the game.

As long as the NFL keeps the officials locked out, they are making the statement that proper officiating, player safety, and the integrity of the NFL does not matter, so long as their profit margins remain unaffected. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young gave the best explanation of the entire situation when he said, “Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There’s nothing they can do to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is they don’t care. Bring in the Division III officials–doesn’t matter. Because in the end, you’re still going to watch the game, we’re going to all complain and moan and gripe and say there’s all these problems, all the coaches say it, the players say it—doesn’t matter. So just go ahead, gripe all you want. … There’s nothing that changes the demand for the NFL … It doesn’t affect the desire for the game. If it affected the desire for the game, they’d come up with a few million dollars.”

On Wednesday, September 26, the NFL and NFLRA reached an eight-year agreement to end the lockout. According to the NFL, the terms of the agreement are that the current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season (or until the official earns 20 years of service). The defined benefit plan then will be frozen. Beginning in 2017 retirement benefits will be provided for all officials through a defined contribution arrangement through 401(k) accounts. Game officials’ compensation will increase from an average of $149,000 per year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019. Beginning with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option of hiring officials on a full-time basis to work year-round, including on the field. The NFL will have the option to retain additional officials for training and development purposes and can assign those additional officials to work NFL games. The number of additional officials will be determined by the NFL.