The Salem News
---- — National Football League fans have a new reason to feel angst this season. It’s summed up in two words: replacement referees.
In just three short weeks, the nation’s most popular and financially successful sport has become the subject of both ridicule and outrage. A contract dispute between the league and the referees union has led to a lockout, and replacement refs have been called in to try to keep the games going.
They are clearly not up to the job. At first, their mistakes were an annoying sideshow. Now they are undermining the integrity of the sport and putting players at risk of career-ending injuries, as the conduct of games spins out of control.
The latest fiasco came Monday night, when an apparent end zone interception by the Green Bay Packers was ruled a touchdown for the Seattle Seahawks. If the Packers miss the playoffs by a game, the call will go down in sports history as the reason.
TV analyst and former coach Jon Gruden called the game’s conclusion both “tragic” and “comical.” The same can now be said about the state of the NFL itself.
The NFL owes its loyal fans a speedy resolution to this ridiculous dispute.
The bad calls, blown calls and poor judgments by the refs have become so common there are now websites dedicated to documenting every ugly error. Game coverage has devolved into a running commentary on how many mistakes the replacement refs are making. It’s now become clear that some games have been won or lost because of bad refereeing.
It was probably inevitable that our beloved New England Patriots would find themselves at the center of the replacement referee scandal. In the ugly 31-30 loss to Baltimore on Sunday night, fans of both teams had much to jeer about. But it was the conduct of Patriots coach Bill Belichick THAT became the top story. The usually stoic Belichick blew a fuse at the end of the game, chasing after a hapless replacement ref and grabbing his arm, while shouting something that the ref ignored. Belichick says he meant no harm and just wanted to know if a questionable field goal was reviewable.
Belichick’s frustrations are shared by millions of fans, as well as the players themselves. The players union sent a letter to the NFL last week, pleading with it to settle its differences with the professional refs and bring them back.
Like so much that happens in professional sports, neither side in this conflict should engender heartfelt sympathy from your typical lunchbucket fan. Referees are handsomely compensated for their work, with the most experienced reportedly earning upward of $300,000 per year. The average salary for a referee is about $149,000 per year. (Replacement referees are paid $3,000 per game, a little more than a third of what the average pro ref earns.) The professional referees are fighting to retain something that most working Americans lost long ago: pensions.
On the other side of the dispute are the multimillionaires and billionaires who own the teams, reaping staggering profits from a monopolized sport.
Seems like there’s plenty of money being made by both sides. No one in this dispute can honestly say they are being wronged and deserve our sympathy.
Which side is right? The fans and the players are right. The NFL and refs need to settle their dispute quickly for the sake of a sport that so many people love.