NFL Debate Rages Whether ‘Terrible’ Call Can End Referee Lockout

While President Barack Obama labeled it a “terrible” call, professors and lawyers disagreed whether a disputed game-ending ruling by substitute officials will hasten the end of the National Football League’s lockout of its regular referees.

The $9.3 billion-a-year NFL said it stood by the call that gave the Seattle Seahawks a last-second win against the Green Bay Packers two nights ago and accelerated criticism of replacement officials.

Sports management professors and labor lawyers argued over whether the call that gave Golden Tate a touchdown and the Seahawks a 14-12 nationally televised victory would help lead to a settlement of the contract dispute that hinges on pensions.

“I’ve been saying for months we’ve got to get our refs back,” Obama said yesterday as he arrived at the White House after speaking at the United Nations in New York.

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said in a statement to players that the lockout of regular referees “jeopardizes your health and safety.”

“It is the NFL’s duty to provide a workplace that is as safe as possible,” Smith said. “We are actively reviewing any and all possible actions to protect you.”

From Hall of Fame players to the Wisconsin governor’s office, the NFL was inundated yesterday with pleas to settle with the officials’ union and protect the image and integrity of the nation’s most popular sport. Las Vegas bookmakers said the disputed call caused a $300 million swing in payoffs worldwide.

Jam Breaker?

It was exactly the kind of conclusion, one determined by officiating, that might lead the league to find a way to reach a deal with the NFL Referees Association before further damage is done to the game, said Paul Haagen, a professor of sports and contract law at Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina.

“Whatever the amounts at stake are, they’re less than the damage they’re doing to their brand,” Haagen said.

League officials and representatives of the referees’ union talked yesterday, according to a person with direct knowledge of the negotiations who was granted anonymity because the discussions are private.

Jeff Pash, the NFL’s general counsel and lead negotiator, said in a memo to teams this week that significant economic and operational issues remained after a weekend of negotiations.

Frank Hawkins, former senior vice president of business affairs for the NFL and founding partner of Scalar Media Partners LLC, said the game-ending controversy won’t affect the bottom line of the league, which he said has seen no dip in viewership or attendance.

Fundamental Economics

“Unless stuff repeatedly happens -- not just controversial calls but clearly wrong calls that are determining a lot of the games -- I don’t see it changing the fundamental economics for the league,” Hawkins said in a telephone interview.

Rick Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University’s Falk College of Sport, said he doesn’t think “fans are going to hold the sponsors of the NFL accountable for this.”

“Roger Goodell’s job is to make 32 owners wealthy, and if this was costing them money, he would have a different stance,” Burton said in a telephone interview. “They are not seeing it impact their business yet, and I don’t think they fear it will impact their brand.”

Game-Ending Play

With the Seahawks trailing 12-7 on fourth down from the Packers’ 24-yard line, quarterback Russell Wilson lofted a pass that was grabbed in the end zone by Green Bay defender M.D. Jennings. As the Packers’ safety brought the ball to his chest, Tate reached in and grabbed hold of it as both players fell to the ground.

One official ruled it a touchdown, while a second gave the signal for a touchback because of an interception.

“When the players hit the ground in the end zone, the officials determined that both Tate and Jennings had possession of the ball,” the NFL said. “Under the rule for simultaneous catch, the ball belongs to Tate, the offensive player. The result of the play was a touchdown.”

The ruling of a simultaneous catch was reviewable because it was in the end zone, the NFL said.

“Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field,” the league said. “The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.”

Prior to the catch, Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground, which should have wiped out the play entirely, the NFL said. That penalty wasn’t flagged.

Pay Offer

The NFL originally offered to increase officials’ pay 7 percent to $161,000 from $149,000 and to more than $189,000 in 2018, Pash said in an earlier memo. He also wrote that the league proposed a 401(k) plan with contributions beginning at about $16,500 in 2012 and increasing to $22,000.

The officials want to continue receiving a traditional pension plan, the memo said. Michael Arnold, chief negotiator for the referees, said in a news release this month that continuing a defined-benefit pension plan for officials would cost the NFL about one-third of 1 percent of its revenue.

“Doesn’t seem worth it to hurt the image of a league that has been so successful,” Warren Zola, assistant dean of graduate programs in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, said in a telephone interview.

Robert Lanza, a partner at the New York law firm Hiscock & Barclay and a former general counsel at the National Basketball Players Association, said no in-game officiating decision would bring the sides closer together.

Long-Term Issues

“These are long-term issues which will not be impacted by a single call -- even if it is one which potentially can determine who goes to the Super Bowl,” Lanza said in an e-mail. “Last night did not change anything and nothing is going to change until both sides reach a deal that makes them both equally unhappy.”

Tate’s touchdown catch led to a swing of $300 million in gambling revenue because 68 percent of bets were on the Packers, according to RJ Bell, founder of Las Vegas-based

“Worldwide, an estimated $150 million more was bet on Green Bay than Seattle,” Bell said in an e-mail. “Meaning, due to one call by the replacement refs, the bettors lost $150 million, and the bookie won $150 million.”

Steady Ratings

Through the first two weeks of the season, ratings on ESPN NFL broadcasts were roughly the same as last season, according to network spokesman Bill Hofheimer. He and Adam Freifeld, spokesman for Comcast Corp.’s NBC, said in e-mails that they had seen no change in advertising interest, and that viewership is tied more to matchups and the competitiveness of games than any other factor.

Through Week 2, NFL paid attendance at games was “a little more than 65,000 per game,” roughly even with last season, NFL spokesman Dan Masonson said in an e-mail. The league produced the two most-watched shows of last week and the most-watched cable program since January, the NFL said in a release.

The effects of the lockout won’t hit the NFL financially until advertisers rethink their relationship with the league, which won’t happen until viewership declines, said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media Inc.

“Football is far and away the most popular television sport in the country,” Adgate said in a telephone interview. “I can see some fantasy football fan showing angst on social media because his player got a bad call overturned, but does that mean he’s not going to watch the NFL? I doubt it.”

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