Do you remember the 2000 movie The Replacements, starring Keanu Reeves as one of a ragtag group of players who replace the pros during an NFL players strike? It’s based on real events from 1987, features a fictional Washington Sentinels team, and was filmed in Baltimore. It was an entertaining screwball comedy, the exact opposite of what you might call the high drama that is enfolding with the current NFL referees lockout. It’s unlikely there will be a movie made about the current chaos, but who knows? At least the movie version of The Replacements had a happy ending, and Keanu got the girl.
No one has a clue when and how the impasse will conclude between the NFL owners and the NFL Referees Association, but there’s a loud cry for it to be soon, especially after the debacle that ended last night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks won 14-12, but the popular opinion—among sportswriters, sportscasters, and the public—is that the Packers were robbed of a victory when the replacement refs declared an endzone play as a Seahawks TD rather than a Green Bay interception (or a penalty that should have nullified the play altogether). The blowback Monday night was instantaneous, leading to a Tuesday of more rage, frustration, recrimination, and debate. Kevin Sheehan, host of ESPN 980’s The Sports Fix, called it “the tipping point.” He’s not alone in that view.
“I’d be surprised if this game last night isn’t the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” says local NBC sportscaster Dan Hellie. He says the owners had been inclined not to budge in the contract dispute with the refs because the lockout had not cost any team a game. “But now that’s happened,” he says. Eric Bickel, of the daily Sports Junkies on 106.7 the Fan, says, “The season is already stained. Ruined. Can you imagine being a Packers fan? God forbid they miss the playoffs by a game.”
But both Hellie and Bickel don’t think the NFL will back down, because the 31 team owners don’t have to back down. Ticket sales, TV ratings, and profits are strong. “The only way the NFL would hear is if fans turned off their TVs and stopped watching,” says Hellie. “But people are still going to watch. The [lockout] won’t affect NFL revenue one bit.”
Bickel is much harder on the owners. “These guys are ruthless businessmen. If they can break the officials’ union, they will do it. They are pushing around the officials because they can. It’s classic bullying,” he says. “If [NFL commissioner Roger] Goodell had real respect from the owners, if they respected his opinion, and he cared about the integrity of the League, he could get this done.”
The replacement refs have been at the center of some notorious episodes in the first three regular-season games of the Washington Redskins, costing the team in a variety of ways. In last Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Redskins coaches were perplexed when the refs resolved a disputed call by incorrectly placing the ball at 25 yards back when the penalty was 20 yards. It cost the Redskins a chance at tying the game. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan blew his stack at one of the officials, who hit him with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Shanahan has since said he “acted in the wrong way,” and the NFL is deciding whether to fine or suspend him. Sheehan called the 25-yard penalty something “nobody had ever heard of.”
Wide receiver Josh Morgan has also received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that cost the team important yardage. In the losing game against the St. Louis Rams, in a fit of frustration aimed at the refs, he threw the ball at a Rams player. The 15-yard penalty was the difference between a possible field goal and an impossible one.
“On Sunday, the Redskins recovered a fumble in the third quarter and a guy picked it up and ran into the endzone and the refs said he was down, but he wasn’t, and it wasn’t reviewed,” recalls Dan Steinberg, who writes the Washington Post’s DC Sports Blog. “That was an egregious mistake, and the broadcast glossed over it.” Hellie says it might take a player injury for the impasse to end, but Steinberg says that already has happened and with no result. “There was a guy in the Raiders game who got knocked unconscious, and there wasn’t a call or a penalty.”
For the NFL referees, the issue is a pension that historically was part of their contract. The owners are balking at continuing the pension, opting instead for a 401K plan. Every sports reporter we talked to felt the issue was relatively minor in terms of cost versus profit, and that if both sides gave a little, the lockout would end quickly. “This is a league that generates $9 billion in revenue, and they are $2 million apart,” says Bickel.
“These refs are part-time employees who are getting more than $40,000 a year put into a pension plan,” says Hellie. “All the other NFL employees have now gone to a 401K, like most of America.” He says the refs are paid on average $140,000 to $150,000 per season. “The vast majority of NFL refs have other jobs as doctors, salesmen, partners in law firms, things like that. For a lot of them it’s a hobby.” Sheehan says, “There are many companies eliminating pensions all over the country for full-time employees, and these refs are part-time.” That doesn’t mean he’s not sympathetic. “Everybody wants the refs back.”
Is there a sense of piling onto the seemingly hapless replacement refs? “I don’t know,” says Bickel. “I feel for them because they are out of their element. They are competing at a level they are not prepared for. Some of them referee seventh-grade games. I’m sure they are trying their best, but they are just not qualified.”
Fans, as always, are left on the sidelines without many options, beyond calling in to sports radio shows and ranting over social media or a beer at the local pub. Refusing to go to the stadiums would be dramatic but wouldn’t hurt the owners’ profits, because most tickets are sold in advance. The players likely have no taste for aggressive action. “After what they went through last year with the walk-out, I don’t think the players or their association would suggest anything but to go out and play the calls and let the owners work it out,” says Sheehan.
Until there is a resolution, football fans are faced with predictably unpredictable games that seem to grow longer each week as the disputes escalate. It may be a new unfortunate component of the game: tuning in to watch the chaos as officials argue with the players, the coaches, and most often each other. Hellie observes, “I’ve seen better communication between men and women than between these refs.”