What’s the Deal With the NFL’s Replacement Referees?

Here’s what you need to know about how and why the NFL has turned to replacement referees during contract negotiations

It’s that time of year when every football fan is excited and every non-football fan groans at having to hear about what happened at last night’s game. Whichever you are, you’ve probably heard about the replacement referees. You’ve probably heard that they’re bad. And they are. But who are they, why are they there and where did they come from?

These referees are replacements for the normal team of NFL refs. Those regular refs are currently locked in a tense negotiating process over their contracts. But before we get into the details of the regular refs’ labor dispute, let’s look at the performance of their replacements. You might have heard about the calls that the refs flubbed. Like the no-call on roughing the kicker in the Chargers-Titans game. Or the offensive pass interference flag on Jacoby Jones of the Baltimore Ravens. Or maybe the pass interference call against Ike Taylor when he didn’t even touch Santonio Holmes. Or, in the same game, the flag against Ryan Clark for a legal hit on Ike Taylor. Or the touchdown stolen from the Rams in their game against the Redskins. Or the subsequent penalty against Stephen Jackson who spiked the ball in disgust. We could go on, but we won’t.

The verdict on this week’s referee performance is pretty unanimous. CBS wrote:

Humiliating, disgraceful … doesn’t do justice to this week. This was bad. This was Skywalker-discovering-his-father-was-a-magical-mass-murderer bad.

Even Mike Pereira, former vice president of officiating for the NFL, thinks things are bad. He went on CBS Boston this week and said:

Although have done some good things, I think it points out the need to get the regular guys back on the field. They make mistakes too, but they don’t make administrative mistakes, and that to me is a key issue.

FOX Sports was a little bit more understanding:

You can’t expect replacements to know the intricacies of the NFL rule book in two weeks on the job. It takes years. But it doesn’t take long — two weeks — to see this is not working.

Even The Onion got in on the rabble rousing, writing that the refs flubbed big calls like:

  • Failed to penalize team for unsportsmanlike behavior after player exhibited slightest bit of emotion after touchdown
  • Awarded a bronze medal to Algeria
  • Forgot to collect scorecards from the players as they left the field
  • Showed up on field in Eli Manning replica jerseys

Vikings player Chris Kluwe, who was recently in the news for his scathing letter to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr., had this to say about the refs:

It seems as if, after every call, all 35 refs come sprinting in to discuss the merits of Kafka’s Metamorphosis as it relates to the economy of Bangladesh, and just when you think they’ve finally figured it out, they reconvene for Round 2. Then Round 3. I saw a baby born in the stadium reach full walking status during one ref conference, and at the end of it, when they finally announced something, no one had any idea whether it was even the right decision or not. We didn’t care at that point; we just wanted to move on to the next play so we could finish the game before the Mayan apocalypse. I am slightly curious how the TV networks are going to handle eight-hour games. I bet we get cut for Heidi.

And if that’s not bad enough, the replacement refs have been in trouble not only for bad calls but for straight-up conflicts of interest. Brian Stropolo was pulled from reffing after people found his Facebook page, on which he clearly and openly rooted for the New Orleans Saints. Stropolo was set to referee a Saints game on Sunday. Jeff Sadorus worked the Seahawks Cardinals game last week as a field judge. Turns out, he’d been a paid practice official for the Seahawks for the past three years.

So why exactly are these replacements here?

The dispute between the regular refs and the NFL is about compensation and benefits. The referees want to retain their pension program, while the league wants to move them over to a 401(k) structure. The union is also disputing what the NFL claims is a 5 to 11 percent increase in salary. ESPN writes:

According to ESPN.com’s Darren Rovell, the average pay for NFL game officials last season was $149,000. Under the NFL’s last proposal, that would increase to more than $189,000 by 2018. In addition, a game official in his first year in 2011 made an average of $78,000. Under the NFL’s last proposal, he would make more than $165,000 by the end of the new agreement.

The NFL also wants many of their officials switch from part time positions to full time. But over 90 percent of NFL officials already have full time jobs that pay more and are unwilling to make the switch.

At stake for the league is about $9 million—a drop in the bucket compare to the billions that the NFL rakes in each year. For context, the average NFL team is worth $1.04 billion. Each team makes about $30.6 million all told. By Forbes‘ estimate, the whole shebang, all the NFL teams, made about $8.3 billion last year. The $9 million that the referees are asking for is something like .3% of the NFL annual revenue.

But the league isn’t ready to back down. They’ve brought in these replacements and are holding out against the referees’ demands. The National Football League Referees Association (NFLRA) spokesman wasn’t surprised. He told ESPN, “This is consistent with the NFL’s negotiating strategy which has been ‘take it or leave it and lock them out.’” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello fired back. “On the NFLRA, we are prepared to resume negotiations at any time. NFLRA talks to the media a lot more than it talks to us.”

The replacements, the men (and woman) who are stepping on the field while the regular officials are locked out, come from all over. Some of them are from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. But none of them come from Division I college teams, and some of them are high school refs. Craig Ochoa reffed for the Lingerie Football League.

If these credentials aren’t particularly impressive, consider that some people say that the NFL is overhyping the experience of the replacements. Mike Pereira told WSCR:

They’ve tried to say that Craig Ochoa . . . was a BCS official, that he worked in the Big Ten.  He didn’t work in the Big Ten. He’s not been a major college official. I don’t think the NFL is going to say that he actually got released midway through the last Lingerie Football League season as a referee. I don’t think the league is going to put that out.  The league wants as little out as possible.  They don’t want people talking about it.  They don’t want me talking about it.

The NFL knows this isn’t ideal. The New York Times writes:

The league knows it is taking a chance using replacements for regular-season games. The league has done virtually everything it could to support them. It has continued to train them. It has put supervisors at each stadium to help them. It has brushed off complaints about the uneven officiating, noting — correctly — that everyone complains about the regular officials, too. Locked-out officials even saw last weekend’s meetings — and the subsequent leaking of negotiating points — as the league’s reaction to criticism it has received because of the uneven performance of the replacements.

Now, this isn’t the first time that the NFL has turned to replacements. In 2001, the first week of the regular season was refereed by replacements while the regulars hammered out a contract. But they’ve never spilled over in to Week 3.

Other people point out that without the replacements, there would be no NFL, so everyone should stop complaining. CBS writes:

Yeah, maybe they’re not as good as the regular referees. I’m willing to concede that point, so long as you’re willing to concede that the regular referees weren’t all that good in the first place. Nobody ever looked at Ed Hochuli warming up on the field before the game and sighed in relief. The regular refs were so good, Bill Leavy apologized to the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, four years after the fact, for the way he and his crew screwed up Super Bowl XL. Leavy worked so hard to improve that he screwed up a replay in the Giants-Packers playoff game last season, though this mistake — unlike the avalanche of mistakes in Super Bowl XL — didn’t affect the outcome.

It’s true that everyone loves to hate referees, especially referees they see as scabs. But for now, the lockout is still in effect. Week three will see the same refs and probably a lot of the same blunders. Let’s just hope that they remember how many time-outs each team gets this week.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Meet the First Woman to Referee an NFL Game

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