3 Consequences if Replacement Referees Are Here to Stay

3 Consequences if Replacement Referees Are Here to Stay
Will this play be forever known as "The Immaculate Deception"? (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Seattle Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson evading the rush of Green Bay Packer defenders to launch a Hail Mary pass to attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat would normally elicit excitement from the uncertainty of the impending result synonymous with the crescendo of a symphony orchestra in the hearts and minds of football fans. Moments later, the reaction from players, coaches, announcers, analysts, insiders, and fans would actually resemble viewing a 12 car pile-up with its first responders crashing into one another at the scene of the disaster.

The Green Bay Packers versus Seattle Seahawks Monday Night Football contest produced the second consecutive prime time contest where the integrity of the extremely popular sports league’s replacement referees were squarely on display for a national audience.

Many affiliated with the game of football questioned aloud after the disputed game’s conclusion would last night’s fiasco be a watershed moment which leads to a resolution of the ongoing labor impasse between the National Football League and the NFLRA, the collective bargaining entity which negotiates salaries, benefits, and labor rights on behalf of the NFL’s game officials.

The larger question remains as such: if last night’s game does not alter the state of affairs, what are the potential business and/or legal consequences?

1. Could NFL Players Strike or Sue the National Football League?
From a contractual perspective, it would appear on the face of the NFL’s agreement with its players, NFL players have no grounds to strike or sue the NFL based on using replacement officials. Article 3 of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement provides the “NFLPA nor any of its members” cannot strike, lockout, or sue the NFL based on the terms of its CBA. The rights of officials are clearly a third party matter unaffecting the NFL’s CBA. Therefore, the NFLPA and the NFL players could not take action unless the NFL violates terms of the CBA (and the terms of settlement of prior Reggie White and Tom Brady cases which were the center of the NFL’s last two lockouts).

From a labor perspective, the waters could be slightly murkier. Under Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers have a duty to protect its employees from “serious recognized hazards”. Being an inherently dangerous sport where players violently crash into one another, the duty to protect is balanced versus the assumption of risk of injury for players engaging in the associated contact prevalent in the sport. That being said, in accordance with applying and enforcing the NFL Rulebook for on-field play, NFL referees function as an arm of NFL as employers to protect employee players from “serious recognized hazards”, unreasonable bodily harm. If it could be determined using unqualified officials (from failing to apply rules) has led to serious injuries of players, any suit brought by the NFLP or injured NFL players potentially would be outside of the scope of the NFL CBA and its terms.

That being said, although several players took to Twitter threatening strike, it is highly unlikely to happen. Players do not want to lose game checks in the middle of a season. A player suffering a career threatening injury might be a more likely plaintiff. Stay tuned.

ESPN enjoyed high ratings criticizing Packers v. Seahawks game. (Presswire Photo/Kirby Lee)

2. Could the National Football League Hurt its Relationships with Broadcasters?
According to Fang's Bites, the Green Bay Packers versus Seattle Seahawks Monday Night Football contest registered 11.5 overnight rating. Although some fans have threatened not the watch the NFL until it resolves it referee labor issue, the difference is negligible. The inverse effect may have happened – the attention toward watching replacement officials snafus have raised interest in casual fans of the league.

The loyalty of fans of the National Football League is unmatched in North American sports. Excitement of fans after last season’s lock out was palpable. Ratings remained high, jersey sales remained brisk, and stadiums continued to be filled (Oakland, Miami, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay aside). With $4 billion plus in broadcast deals locked up for the next 10 years, the NFL doesn’t have much incentive to balk at the complaints of its consumers.

What about requiring announcers and analysts not to criticize the NFL on its current negotiations with the NFLRA? The NFL has no incentive to take such an action, due to the criticism being a net benefit to the league. ESPN, whose parent company Disney has a $1.9 billion deal until 2012 to broadcast Monday Night Football, in its flagship sports news program Sportscenter spent an entire broadcast covering reaction to the officiating from its Monday Night Football contest. The program itself delivered a whopping 5.0 overnight rating, and according to Grantland's Bill Simmons, the highest rating in 17 years. It is evident the NFL and its business partners are actually benefiting from the replacement official sideshow.

It may be some time before Roger Goodell talks to regular referees amicably again. (Getty Images/Al Messerschmidt)

3. Do Regular Official Now Have More Leverage Against the NFL?
Contrary to popular opinion given on television, sports talk radio, message boards, blogs, and social media, last night’s event does not put regular officials in a better position to bargain against the NFL. Assured its players will continue to suit up and its broadcasting partners have increased ratings, the NFL can dig in its heels and turn the negative attention to an advantage in negotiation.

If the NFL turns its back and continues to play hardball, referees may wonder collectively if they could miss an entire season of lost pay, or even worse: the NFL go to as system without collectively bargained game officials. The result could lead to officials taking more concessions than they originally planned to get back on the field.

The Point of It All
The NFL is in a win-win situation. Keep replacement referees on the field and draw casual fans due to the unique interest from seeing an oddly entertaining brand of football. Settle its labor impasse with regular referees and satisfy an already loyal fan base while at the same time further legitimizing said referees’ decisions once they are back on the field.

Last night's debacle did very little to change the NFL's  enviable bankable position.

The NFL shield remains as strong as ever.

Exavier B. Pope, Esq. is an entertainment and sports attorney, media personality, syndicated writer, Fortune 500 speaker and peak performance strategist, author, philanthropist, and sports business and law blogger for ChicagoNow. All opinions expressed are those solely of Mr. Pope.

(c) 2012, Exavier Pope

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  • Unfortunately, by the time I saw this in the right pane, it became moot.

    However, Rick Harrow said on NBR that the real issue is that it hadn't affected the beer and other sponsors.

    And from Wednesday noon's announcement that they had settled, and today's that they are rushing the regular refs into the Thursday night game, apparently your prediction #3 was proven incorrect.

  • Like I said Jack, it was a "win-win" for the NFL. "Settle its labor impasse with regular referees and satisfy an already loyal fan base while at the same time further legitimizing said referees’ decisions once they are back on the field."

    With the 21 ref taxi squad and the NFL having more control over replacing officials, as well as eliminating the pension to a 401k style retirement in 4 years, the NFL won.

  • In reply to Exavier Pope:

    Whether the "settle the impass" is a win win depends on what is in the final agreement, sort of like Lewis and whoever the education PAC running commercials during the teachers' strike, and then essentially the same commercials (except the PAC had Emanuel, raising the question of whether the horse was driving the cart or vice versa), but declaring we and our "clients" [my using a generic term for students and parents] won.

    My point was simply on #3, and especially "the NFL can dig in its heels and turn the negative attention to an advantage in negotiation. If the NFL turns its back and continues to play hardball, referees may wonder collectively if they could miss an entire season of lost pay, or even worse: the NFL go to as system without collectively bargained game officials...." Based on 36 hours hindsight, apparently not.

    The real question is whether the apparently now reflex reaction of calling a lockout is now worth it. I'm sure you won't being saying so with respect to the NHL.

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