The Free Press, Mankato, MN


September 26, 2012

Our View: NFL playing a losing game

— One of America's most highly valued and successful businesses has been standing on the sidelines while its franchise is devalued by its own inability to solve a minor problem.

The National Football League was apparently making some progress Wednesday in talks with its referees. Reports indicated the league apparently has struck a deal. But regardless, the impasse has gone on too long.

The NFL had held out for months against its professional referees as replacement officials make bad call after bad call that are quickly eroding confidence of players, coaches, owners and most importantly the fans.

The replacement official fiasco reached epic proportions. It exploded last weekend with replacement officials mistakenly granting San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh not one extra challenge, but two after he used all his timeouts in his game against the Vikings. There was the near assault of a referee by New England coach Bill Belichick. Then there were the two missed plays at the end of the Green Bay-Seattle game that cost Green Bay the win.

After the NFL reviewed the tapes they determined yes, Green Bay should have won because the Seattle player committed offensive pass interference that wasn't called. But then incredulous fans, players and coaches saw a clear interception on the part of Green Bay go to Seattle. More incredibly, the NFL said the play was inconclusive. So the ruling stood and the game went to Seattle.

This officiating incompetence is the biggest threat ever to the NFL brand.

If the NFL's $9 billion in annual revenues could be compared to a pile of money as high as the Empire State Building, the officiating debacle amounts to King Kong taking handfuls of that money and throwing it to the wind.

Fans have been on the verge of boycotting games. The NFL's TV partners can't be happy about that.

And for all this, the NFL appeared to have been holding out to save $5 million a year (five hundredths of a percent) and some minor concessions to the professional referees. Sticking points in the negotiations were about a pension freeze and establishment of a 401(k) for referees. For a business that brings in $9 billion, the concessions seem minor.

But the locked out referees should have realized they've got skin in this game too. They seemed to be holding out for higher salaries and benefits even though some will make up to $200,000 a year for a part-time job under the NFL proposal. They also were opposing the NFL's plan to hire some permanent referees in some kind of turf battle.

But the burden falls mostly on the NFL and its team owners. They've got to see how this has been crippling the league's value and brand. And as players push more and more to see what they can get away with, more are likely to be injured.

It's simple: The NFL needs to settle this problem soon or have its brand reduced to arena league caliber, its players' safety compromised and team values eroded.


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