You could excuse the National Football League for feeling like a tackling dummy Tuesday. What many weren't excusing was what happened Monday night in Seattle and how the NFL has only itself to blame for creating an embarrassment of glitches.
Three weeks into the 2012 regular season and the NFL's decision to use on-field replacement officials has coaches and players fuming, fans frothing, U.S. President Barack Obama calling for an end to the referees' lockout, and most everyone believing the integrity of the game has taken a nasty slap to the head.
It's a mess, is what it is, and it's unbecoming for what is supposed to be the best professional sports league on the planet, a multibillion-dollar industry with a knack for doing the smart thing. But with the NFL attempting to claw back pension money from its veteran officials – and with the National Hockey League keen to observe while in a lockout of its own – the going has been anything but smooth.
Through the pre-season, NFL owners believed television replays would be enough to save the inexperienced officials gleaned from college and semi-professional leagues. But when the season opened, the officiating became more controversial, a missed call here, a bungle there. Then came Monday's encounter between the Seattle Seahawks and the visiting Green Bay Packers.
On the final play of the game, the Seahawks threw a deep pass into the Green Bay end zone. One official ruled it a Seattle catch and touchdown; the other signaled no touchdown. When Seattle was awarded the win, chaos ensued and carried over to Tuesday when the NFL announced the touchdown would stand, although Seattle receiver Golden Tate should have been flagged for pass interference on the scoring play.
Just how influential was that call? Las Vegas oddsmakers estimated that $300-million (all figures U.S.), perhaps more, changed hands when the officials ruled the ball ended up in Mr. Tate's hands. "Due to one call by the replacement refs, the bettors lost $150-million, and the bookie won $150-million for a total swing of $300-million on one debatable bad call," said R.J. Bell of Pregame.com.
To add to the furor, the commissioner of the women's Lingerie Football League issued a statement saying one of his former officiating crews was now employed by the NFL. "Due to several on-field occurrences of incompetent officiating, we chose to part ways with a crew that is now officiating in the NFL," Mitch Mortaza said. "We have a lot of respect for our officials and we felt the officiating was not in line with our expectations."
In 2001, the NFL Referees' Association was locked out for the first week of the regular season before signing a collective agreement and returning to work. On average, an NFL official makes $150,000 a season. Many also have a full-time or part-time job outside the NFL. The league wants every official to be a full-time NFL employee and it also wants to pay less into the officials' pension fund. Reports have the pension cuts at close to $18,000 per year per official.
The players are beginning to lend their voice to the officials' plight. The NFL Players' Association dispatched a comment from its executive director DeMaurice Smith saying the NFL's decision to lock out the referees had removed "1,500 years of collective experience" and "made the workplace less safe." Brandon Spikes, a New England Patriots' linebacker, went further in a tweet: "Can someone please tell these [replacement] zebras Foot Locker called and they're needed back at work."
With inexperienced officials needing more time to sort out calls, the games are taking longer. And Toronto Argonauts' defensive back Ahmad Carroll, who played five seasons in the NFL, two with the Packers, said he's heard from NFL players that there are more pass interference calls.
"The game is so much faster in the NFL," Mr. Carroll said. "Refs can get caught up in watching the game when they're not used to the speed of the game."
Cornerback Dwight Anderson of the Montreal Alouettes said players typically understand they can't control everything that happens in a game, and yet he acknowledged things are not normal in the NFL.
"It's getting ugly. I'm pretty sure the league is prideful of their brand," Mr. Anderson said. "I could see the owners coming forward and seeing what they could do about [solving] it."
As for encouraging news, there was a tidbit Tuesday. After taking its share of hits, the NFL and its officials returned to the bargaining table for talks. And if the league was smart, it would listen to what Marwan Hage of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats had to say about the use of replacement referees.
"All this is doing is helping the actual referees prove their point," he said. "You're seeing what happens when people who aren't qualified are allowed to officiate."
With reports from Rachel Brady in Toronto and Sean Gordon in Montreal