NFL Referee Lockout: Why the 'Real' Refs Should Stand Their Ground

Lou RomContributor ISeptember 26, 2012

After a week of dreadful officiating failures, any NFL fan worth their weight in pigskin knows one thing is certain.

The NFL referees, locked out for seven game day weeks now, should hold their ground.

The lockout, from the start, has been ridiculous.

Roger Goodell and the league have been squabbling for months over less than one percent of the league's $9 billion pie.

But the main stumbling block for the referees is not salary, it is the NFL's proposal to convert its current pension plan to a traditional 401k.

As Tim Millis, Executive Director of the NFLRA, wrote in an open letter a week ago, "The two sides have narrowed the gap on overall compensation. It is a gap that could be closed with some minor concessions by both sides. However, the parties remain far apart on another key issue, and that issue is the retirement benefit for officials."

Here's the rub: The NFL wants to terminate its pension plan, cut its contribution to the refs' retirement fund by 60 percent, and transfer the long-term risk to the individual referees via the 401k.

Millis called that plan "inferior," and anyone whose employer has shifted from offering a guaranteed pension—one based on salary and years of service—to a 401k that relies on how well investors play the stock market, knows just how inferior such a plan is.

Granted, you might not get teary-eyed for the guys in stripes making $150,000 a year to work 16 or so weekends a year.

But this battle over pensions versus 401Ks is about as American as, well, the NFL.

Just as American is the desire for anyone stuck in negotiations to use all the leverage they can to benefit their side.

In this case, the professional NFL referees—especially after the Monday Night debacle in Seattle—have all the leverage.

Whether you buy it or not, most US companies have shifted to the 401k, which, believe it or not, did not even emerge until the early 1980s. They did so to to save money, and in some cases, to ensure the success of a company that faced an uncertain future.

The NFL is no such company.

The league is more profitable than ever, netting about $9 billion in revenue last year. The quality of the officiating—as we can now clearly see—has played a significant role in that profitability.

To make matters worse for fans, the referees had agreed to accept the shift to the 401k if the NFL would simply agree to grandfather in current referees.

But Goodell and the league have passed on that offer.

Now, every game day that passes, every blown call, every outcome changed, the referees gain more leverage, more clout, and more power at the bargaining table.

Extra Points:

Currently, the NFL pays the NFLRA about $18 million, doled out among some 212 union referees, for an average salary of $150,000.

The NFL agreed two weeks ago to bump that up $1 million, increasing yearly pay to around $190,000 by 2016.

But NFL referees are clearly the cream of the crop. To compare, as exceptional as they are, the NFL has approximately 1,700 players deemed good enough to wear an NFL uniform. The NFL employs just 212 union referees.

And those referees don't get there without years of working for dirt, from high school to Division II colleges, to major college games, and, if they're lucky, the big gig at the NFL.

To be fair, the NFL does have some ideas that would benefit the game. They want to add three more crews to, according to the league, better train rookie referees, improve the quality of officiating and root out those who aren't doing a good job.

In addition, the NFL wants to hire a corps of full-time officials who work year round, but the ref union opposes that, not wanting the refs to have to give up their day jobs.