NFL Referee Lockout Ends: How a Public Relations Crisis Saved the NFL Season

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NFL Referee Lockout Ends: How a Public Relations Crisis Saved the NFL Season
A disgruntled Packers fan protests in front of Lambeau Field the day after a controverial call on Monday Night Football cost Green Bay the game. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

The NFL's three-month-old referee labor strike is finally over, and this week's Monday Night Football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers was the tipping point that pushed it over the edge.

The Seahawks won the matchup against the Packers via decision in an outcome the likes of which is rarely seen outside the ropes of a rigged Las Vegas prizefight.

In what was starting to become less of a surprise every week, the NFL’s replacement referees blew the biggest call of the game and unjustly awarded the Seahawks with the game-winning touchdown as time expired.

No matter how closely you follow the NFL, you have no doubt seen the replays on ESPN, YouTube or the nightly news if you were not watching when the play occurred.

You may have even tweeted about it and discussed it (or heard coworkers or classmates discussing it) ad nauseam over the course of the last 36-to-48 hours.

In fact, the normally buzzing NFL twitter-sphere nearly burst a million keyboards into flames Monday night after the most egregious call yet made by the league’s underqualified replacement officials decided the outcome of the game.

Apparently, the league listened and the social media universe is sure to catch fire once again Thursday with the immediate reinstatement of the NFL's regular officials.

 A regular crew will officiate the NFL Network's game of the week Thursday night between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.

 

Instant Replay

The play in question, in which the Seahawks’ rookie quarterback Russell Wilson scrambled in the pocket, evaded the Packers’ rush and heaved a pass into the end zone toward Seattle receiver Golden Tate as time expired, was simultaneously ruled a touchdown catch by Tate and an interception by Green Bay’s M.D. Jennings.

Then, without so much as a brief consultation with their fellow officials, the two referees who made the initial calls dove into the scrum from which Tate emerged with possession of the pigskin and ruled the play a catch and a touchdown, gifting the Seahawks a 14-12 victory. 

Replay clearly shows the Packers' M.D. Jennings with possession of the ball.

Thanks to a new NFL rule, though, in which every scoring play must be reviewed, the replacement refs had a golden opportunity to correct the call after the video evidence proved without a shadow of doubt that Jennings possessed the ball as he and Tate tumbled back to the ground.

Tate only gained joint possession of the ball after the pair was lying in the end zone amidst a pile of Packers defenders, and he wrested the ball away after the play was over.

But the official reviewing the play did not see it that way, nor did he see the blatant push in the back by Tate against another Green Bay defender which, according to the NFL on Tuesday, should have been ruled pass interference and negated the winning touchdown.

Instead, the ruling on the field stood and the Seahawks got the win to improve their record to *2-1, while the Packers, who lost only once in the 2011 regular season, fell to *1-2.

 

The NFL’s PR Crisis

Prior to Monday night’s officiating fiasco, the NFL already had a public-relations problem on its hands.

The inexperienced replacement refs, most of whom have never even officiated a D-1 NCAA game, made countless disputable calls in recent weeks, the most notable coming in the league's showcase games on Sunday and Monday nights.

However, it took Golden Tate’s *touchdown to turn the league’s heretofore “little” problem with scab officials into a full-blown crisis.

This time, the outcome of a game was clearly decided by an officiating error which they had every chance to correct after video review, but they allowed the call on the field to stand.  Touchdown, Seahawks.

Yet, in the midst of on-again, off-again negotiations with the striking regular officials, the NFL played it cool publicly even though the media, fans and players clamored for drastic action and immediate change.

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The NFL’s official response on Tuesday was that a pass-interference call was missed, but the league stands by the official’s touchdown ruling.

However, public opinion of the NFL's position seemed to be that fans are still buying $80-plus tickets and watching the games on TV, they are still obsessed with fantasy football, and they are still purchasing jerseys and other paraphernalia by the boatload.

Translation: The NFL and its owners are still raking hand over fist, so why should they care?

But while they may be laughing all the way to the bank, the league and its owners were losing in the court of public opinion, and the crisis could have eventually started turning fans away from America’s most popular game.

After all, player strikes and lockouts in the previous two decades damaged fan appeal in professional baseball, basketball and hockey, and it is conceivable that the NFL's referee strike was injuring the product enough that a similar result was possible for America's most popular sport.

 

Disarming the Shield

Monday night was not the first time the refs got the call wrong this season and it won’t be the last—even with the regular referees back on the field—but the league did not even apologize for the atrocious calls the replacements made on a regular basis.

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Just Sunday night, in the closing seconds of the Baltimore Ravens’ win over the New England Patriots, there were numerous controversial pass-interference calls and non-calls made against both teams which nearly determined the game’s outcome.

Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium erupted into perhaps the loudest, most phonetically correct “bull-hockey” chant in league history—it was clearly audible over NBC’s airwaves—until Justin Tucker booted the game-winning field goal which may or may not have actually sailed inside or over the right upright.

And six days earlier, near the end of the first quarter of the Monday Night Football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos, Atlanta was incorrectly given possession of a Knowshon Moreno fumble which Denver clearly recovered. 

The Falcons kicked a field goal to extend their lead to 13-0 five minutes later and they went on to win, 27-20.

There was a time not long ago when NFL officials who made deplorable errors apologized to the public, were suspended and were publicly disgraced—remember Ed Hochuli’s botched fumble call that cost the Chargers a victory over the Broncos in 2008?—but the inferior replacement officials were not held to the same high standards.

How could they be when they are not even qualified to do the job?

In addition to the numerous missed calls and the replacements’ unclear comprehension of the NFL’s encyclopedic rule book, they lost respect of the coaches and players, allowed several skirmishes to get out of control and, perhaps most egregiously, put player safety—which league commish Roger Goodell himself has touted as his No. 1 priority—at risk.

Determining the outcome of a game is one thing, but if a player had been critically injured—and I am not talking about a torn ACL or minor concussion—due to the inability of the less-experienced and less-talented replacements to enforce the NFL’s safety standards, then the honor of “The Shield” would have been further tainted than it already is.

 

The Solution

Whether you supported the NFL owners or the embattled referees during the lockout may come down to who your personal politics.

If you are a left-leaning union supporter, you were likely on the side of the striking officials.

Much like Wisconsin teachers and Detroit auto workers, NFL referees banded together against management to increase their wages and benefits as North American professional sports’ only part-time officiating crew—most hold full-time jobs, study hours of film each week, enforce the league’s player health and safety rules and travel in and out of NFL cities every weekend—in an organized union.

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If your views are more conservative, you fell on the side of the owners whose prerogative it is to make a substantial profit while paying NFL officials a reasonable wage, even if it is significantly less than their counterparts in the NBA and MLB.

But if you are a fan of the NFL, then you know that the most important thing is the product on the field and the only thing that mattered was putting the best and most qualified officials back on the field.

No matter what, "The Shield" had to be protected and that means putting the best possible product on the field at all times, because when you have the best in place, everything else is forgivable.

While the details of the agreement have not yet been made public, the best thing Commissioner Goodell could do was to put an immediate end to this crisis and restore honor to the game.

Even if that meant meeting the officials’ demands—the two sides were only $16 million apart, which is chump change to the league—the NFL had to put the regular referees back on the field this week.

Goodell should go a step farther, though, by offering a public apology to the players he endangered, the coaches he condescended and the fans he insulted by allowing the regular season to begin without the best referees in the game on the field.

Because each week he allowed this dispute to linger on placed the league on shakier ground, and it further damaged his own shaky reputation with the players and fans.

Drew Brees' tweet following Monday night's game said it all:

Nor, for the first three weeks of the season, was it the league millions of NFL fans have grown to love.

 

Jimmy Grappone is a featured columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on BleacherReport.com.

You can follow me on Twitter @jimmygrappone and be sure to check out my archives for more Panthers articles.

Recent articles by Jimmy Grappone:

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