NFL's Replacement Referees Baffle Fans

As the lockout of NFL officials over a labor dispute continues, the replacement refs have been roundly criticized for an increase in bad calls and a general loss of control on the field. NPR's Mike Pesca explains the issues with replacement refs and the ongoing dispute with the regular officials.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

As the lockout of NFL officials continues, the replacement refs have come under heated criticism from coaches, players and fans. But all that went thermonuclear last night when the Seattle Seahawks hosted a desperation Hail Mary pass against the Green Bay Packers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL")

MIKE TIRICO: The game's final play is a Wilson loft to the end zone, which is brought down by Tate with Jennings simultaneous. Who has it? Who'd they give it to? Touchdown. One guy goes up touchdown, the other is saying no time. It has to be looked at, but it's a score. Still under officials down there in the pile looking.

CONAN: Officials looked for the ball, broke up the pile, huddled together, sent the play up to the replay booth, and after an interminable delay, announced the call.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL")

TIRICO: This is deciding who wins the game on this call.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: After further review, the call on the field stands - touchdown. Game is over.

TIRICO: Seahawks win in the most bizarre finish you'll ever see.

CONAN: Announcer Mike Tirico making the call on ESPN's "Monday Night Football." To be fair, bad calls by regular refs and umpires have decided not just football games but the World Series, even a gold medal in basketball. What's the call by an umpire or ref that still drives you crazy? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca joins us from our bureau in New York. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello.

CONAN: And, well, the NFL has issued a statement today that stands by that call, and despite what all of us can see that it looks like an interception, but said actually the game should've been decided by a pass interference call that wasn't made.

PESCA: It was a weird statement. No one expected the NFL to ever overturn its decision or even admit fault on the question that everyone was debating. Actually, what do you call a debate where it's 100 percent in agreement that people think that it was an interception? It's that sort of debate. But oddly, in this - this statement concludes, before they list all the applicable rules with this sentence, the result of the game is final.

But in the middle of the statement, they do say that there was a pass interference, and they don't say it should've been called, but it does say this: The pass interference should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. Put those two together, it seems like they're admitting mistake, but they're not admitting mistake. They go through the machinations of what happened. The defender grabbed the ball. It looked like the wide receiver got his hands in there, didn't really wrestle it away from the defender.

It's why every commentator watching the game said it should've been an interception. They did not weigh in. They just basically said the referees made a judgment call, then they looked at the review and were not going to second guess what the referee saw in that review. And when I say referees, you heard a reference there that one guy has his hands up, the other guy doesn't. The referees on the field weren't even in agreement. It was all too typical, sorry state of affairs with these replacement referees.

CONAN: And it's not just blown calls, and that one was particularly egregious, but it's seemingly lack of control of the game. Things are happening. It's stretching out over time as they huddled for conferences time and again. And the players are trying to get away with things they wouldn't normally, ordinarily even try.

PESCA: Yeah. So George Will did once or frequently derides football as short burst of action interspersed with committee meetings, and what he means are the huddles. But now the referees have all these committee meetings, and they don't know exactly where to put the ball or exactly what call to make. And there's a weird dynamic in these games because there's an off-field official. And when regular referees, the locked-out guys, when they're there, this off-field official is consulted with rarely and almost never intervenes. But now it seems that this off-field official, who most of the time was a regular official, who worked NFL games but might be a little older, not physically capable of running up and down the field, now this guy is being called into every decision. It's dragging the games longer and longer. It's making things like instant replay reviews, which happen. There was a replay review in the Saints versus Chiefs game, and the Chiefs' ball carrier, Draughn, was down on the carpet. All parts of him were touching the carpet, and then the ball popped out. Everyone who knows football knows that that's not a fumble. It took them five minutes to figure out this wasn't fumble. It's making what should be exciting games much less fun, but in terms of really important thing in terms of the negotiation, it doesn't seemed to be affecting ratings yet.

CONAN: And that brings us to the negotiating. What's in issue here?

PESCA: It's mostly pensions. There's, with any negotiation, money at stake. And to put quite simply, the NFL referees' pensions that was negotiated for in the 2006 collective bargaining agreement, the NFL wants to move them to 401(k) plans. It's happening all over America. It's not an issue unique to referees. Only teachers' union and machinists and so forth don't play these big games on "Monday Night Football" where everyone is at stake in them getting a contract.

Another interesting aspect of this is that most of the NFL teams, the slight majority, don't even give pensions to their own employees. So there's a little more at stake symbolically in showing that the owners have a backbone. There's a little more at stake than just saying, these games, these "Monday Night" and "Sunday Night Football" games are becoming a much less palatable product, therefore, we'll fork over the relatively small amount of money that's in dispute. This year - to get the deal done for this year will take about $3 million in total. It's about $30 million over seven years is the distance apart the two sides are.

CONAN: And the commissioner, Roger Goodell, is catching a lot of heat, but effectively, he works for the owners.

PESCA: He does. He has 31 and a half constituents in a way since the Green Bay Packers don't have an actual owner. The only news that I was looking for today - I knew that after the game, all the announcers on ESPN - may be a little surprising because they are business partners with NFL - but they were ripping apart the NFL. And I particularly enjoyed Steve Young engaged, you know, he vacillated between eloquence and being lost for words. And he and Trent Dilfer, two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks talked about, you're ruining the game. We love it. It seems like a way of life was on the line. And I understand their ire.

But, you know, ESPN, all these - all the broadcasters - I think everyone had gone on board and said, something's got to change. It doesn't matter what they say. It doesn't matter what every caller to sports talk radio says, right? It matters what the 31 guys who are on the team say.

CONAN: And there's another problem. They put out a memo last week to coaches and players, saying, would you stop berating the referees, please?

PESCA: Yeah.

CONAN: Don't do this in public.

PESCA: And because(ph) your replacement ref week, yeah.

CONAN: Yes. And then there was one incident. One coach caught $30,000 fine, and there were other incidents. Bill Belichick of the Patriots grabbed a referee to try to get his attention to protest a play at the end of his game that he lost. There was an incident in the Washington Redskins game where one of the assistant coaches berated an official so badly that the team was handed what turned out to be a 25-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that's not in the books. But anyway, those guys can expect fine. What about all these players who've been twitting about what a joke that last call was?

PESCA: Yeah. I think it's really - it's out of the bag. And Roger Goodell is the guy who likes to put a tamp down on these things and not have chaos, but it's too far gone. But again, he's not going to be able to change the minds or opinions of every player. He's not going to be - I mean, remarkably, you have Minnesota Vikings players saying, what a terrible decision that caused the Green Bay Packers the game. That's how you know it's bad.

But, yeah - so Goodell can't fight - Goodell can't convince anyone. He can't fight this in the public's mind. He can't change anyone's opinion, but he can have a negotiating strategy. And I just heard maybe one convincing argument or at least it's worth considering. Well, how can he just be so obstinate? Doesn't he care about PR? Doesn't the league know that it's hurting its product? They're an entertainment property. It's much less entertaining.

And so the one argument I heard that was - that has some logic to it is, the more obstinate he is, he meaning he and the owners are, the less he shows the willingness to compromise, the more he gives the message that we are stern, tough negotiators. And it's a message he wants to give because he doesn't care so much about the three to $5 million at stake with these referees. He really cares about the negotiation with the players that's coming up. And so maybe, based on this almost bizarre world logic, that more intense the heat is - thermal nuclear, you call it - the tougher Goodell looks by standing up to the heat.

CONAN: And once it's settled - and it will be settled. Once it's settled, how long do you think it will be before the regular refs are compared unfavorably to the replacements?

PESCA: Oh, it won't happen. There'll be a honeymoon period. And I think what we're seeing is that there are mistakes in every game. But now, it seems like the narrative is that these replacement refs can't get anything right, and they do some things right. Also, there are so many calls that really could go either way. Now, the replacement refs are not getting the benefit of any of these calls.

On the "Sunday Night Football" game, to Cris Collinsworth, who's the announcer for NBC, to his credit, he explicitly said, guys, you got to settle, you know. So he was kind of may be talking out of school, talking about the business partner of NBC and advising them on their business. But he was also decrying a lot of penalties that to my mind were actually properly called. He spent five or 10 minutes talking about how one penalty should have been, perhaps, illegal contact instead of interference. It doesn't matter. It was still a five-yard penalty, and it was still a properly called penalty. So watching these games, you get the impression that these replacement refs don't even know if we're using a football or a soccer ball out there. They maybe a little bit better than that.

CONAN: Mike Pesca, NPR sports correspondent, comes with us from our bureau in New York. So this game will stick in the Green Bay Packers' crop(ph) for quite some time, but there had been other notorious incidents where referees or umpires have caused their team a game, sometimes in the World Series, sometimes at the Olympic Games. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Andy's on the line with us from Chico, California.

ANDY: Hi. Wasn't it a few years ago that we had a regular NFL official who couldn't tell the difference heads and tails?

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That's right. And I think, Mike Pesca, isn't that the game where they couldn't tell - they awarded one team a possession of the ball in overtime. They went on to score and win, and that's why the NFL changed its overtime rules.

PESCA: Yeah. It was Pittsburgh versus Detroit game. Jerome Bettis called - I think he called heads, and it was listened to as tails, and Bettis looked confused by that. Maybe I got it wrong. But anyway, there was definitely confusion, and they gave it to the wrong team. And this was also prior to the new rules for overtime where every team gets to touch the ball a little bit. Yeah.

But you see, compare, right, which I guess someone could hear something wrong has happened all the time, to last week's game, just a spate of so many problems that we can't even talk about every problem in every game. The Detroit/Tennessee game where 12 extra yards were awarded on the overtime-winning drive, that 25-yard penalty you referred to in the Redskins game. San Francisco was just given two free looks at a challenge, a referee challenge. Against rules. You're not allowed to challenge when you have no time-outs. The refs didn't know that. So it seemed like, yeah, heads or tails. I trade it all for heads versus tails at this point.

CONAN: Andy, thanks very much for the call. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Reese(ph) on the line, calling from Laramie, Wyoming.

REESE: Hey. Thanks again for the show again, Neal. It's fantastic so far.

CONAN: Thanks.

REESE: I just wanted to say my game happens to be the game of the tuck rule where Tom Brady fumbled, and they said he did not.

CONAN: And that was a, of course, Mike Pesca, in the playoffs.

REESE: That was huge.

PESCA: That was - yeah, and that was proper interpretation of the rule. And they look - people were confused that that was the rule, but they got it right. And they looked back in the off-season. I even did a story for NPR about how - this was about the time that our elections - there were all these problems with elections in Florida. And I did a story, saying, wow, you can't even reform elections, but you can reform the NFL like that. So some of the most controversial decisions in the NFL - a couple of years ago, there was a play where Calvin Johnson caught a touchdown, got up and kind of spike the ball, and it was ruled he didn't have it long enough. It was actually a correct interpretation of the rule. So it does strike me as ironic that sometimes the referees are most criticized for getting calls right.

REESE: But even Mike Pereira, the former NFL vice president for officiating, doesn't agree with the tuck rule.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I have to say...

REESE: I don't know.

CONAN: ...I saw that play and tuned away, thinking the game was over. Silly me. Reese, thanks very much.

REESE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Matthew. Matthew with us from Portage, Michigan.

MATTHEW: Yes. I'd just like to comment on the absolutely horrible officiating (unintelligible) Sunday night game Baltimore versus the Patriots. I mean, you got the Baltimore guys being extended multiple times. And then at the end, a field goal - you may or may not have gone actually to do the uprights.

CONAN: It might have been karma for the tuck rule game.

MATTHEW: Yes, and that is probably might be true.

CONAN: Did you happen to catch that, Mike?

PESCA: Yeah. First of all, they need to make the uprights a little longer. I've consulted with physicists. It's possible. It seems like five times a year that there's a debate if balls go over the uprights. But the replay showed and they did a good job explaining if a ball goes over any part of the uprights is considered a field goal, which is why Bill Belichick was wrong to have grabbed the official. Beside the fact that he grabbed the official, he was just wrong on the point of fact.

That's the sort of the game where you say it was really bad. The officiating was really bad. But, perhaps, a lot of those calls could be argued either way. And we were saying that in the absence of one huge game that's clearly decided by a referee's decision, maybe there won't be the impetus to settle it. As we're having that discussion, there was one game left on the week three schedule. It was this game between the Packers and Seahawks we're talking about, and that is exactly the perfect storm of utter incompetence on the most important play of the game in a most well-watched game of the week. It couldn't have been worse for the NFL.

CONAN: And at the same moment, wouldn't the officials union have every reason to say, we're not budging. Our position just got a long stronger.

PESCA: Yeah. Maybe they just asked for double the pension money. No, they didn't. But, yes, it would seem, you know, they haven't upped their demand, so it's up to the league to meet them, I guess.

CONAN: Let's go to Carl, and Carl is with us from Rochester, New York.

CARL: Hi. I was just going to give the - a hockey example of the '99 Stanley Cup playoffs, game seven, when the Sabres where winning when Brett Hull's foot was in the crease for Dallas.

CONAN: And, yes, the - that was a bad call...

CARL: Yes, it was.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Mike.

PESCA: Yeah, he was kind of skating the crease for a goal. But this is one of those rules - and you go online, Google that, you'll see great photographs and images. I just happened to think for the first, you know, 50 years of sports, there were probably worst calls. We just didn't have the technology to notice them. Now, as high-def replays and cameras being situated right above the goal, we know that there are all these calls that are wrong. Then there's the other category where boxing, you know, boxing competitions.

CONAN: Oh, well...

PESCA: Roy Jones Junior in such a bad decision in the Olympics that they had to reform the whole game. And if you want to talk - I was just thinking about this - worse call ever, what's the game - what's the world's game and what's the biggest stage? It's the World Cup, and it's Diego Maradona's hand of God, punching the ball into the goal.

CONAN: And that caused England a chance to advance in the World Cup.

PESCA: Yeah.

CONAN: Mike Pesca, thanks very much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

CONAN: NPR's Mike Pesca, our sports correspondent, one of them, joining us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, it's Political Junkie day. We hope you join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Washington.

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