What Are the Real Refs and the NFL Actually Fighting About? Heres What You Need to Know

Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, right, argues with referee Mike Shepherd during the second half in an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, in Glendale, Ariz. The Cardinals defeated the Eagles 27-6. Credit: AP

Following the shocking conclusion to Monday night’s amateurishly refereed Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks game, many of you probably wondering what’s going on with the National Football League’s professional referees.

Two words: labor dispute.

“The league initiated a lockout when the contract with the NFL Referees Association [NFLRA] expired in June and the two sides failed to agree on a new deal. Talks have resumed, but without a new collective bargaining agreement in place the regular referees can’t return to the field,” the Associated Press reports.

The major point of contention? The league’s attempts to reform referee pension benefits.

“[T]he league wants all referees to move from a traditional pension plan, in which the league contributes a yearly $38,500 per ref and the officials are guaranteed money after retirement, to a 401(k) plan, where the employees contribute money are guaranteed a kind of vague, free-floating anxiety about the future,” Gawker’s Max Reed explains.

“The union has said they’d agree to a deal putting all new employees on the 401(k) as long as current referees are grandfathered in; the N.F.L. says everyone needs to be on the 401(k),” he adds.

Simply put, the dispute comes down to a question over whether refs should contribute to their own pensions.

“The key is the pension issue,” Scott Green, the head of the referees’ union, told the HuffPo. “A lot of our guys have made life-career decisions based on assuming that pension would be there.”

Of course, there are other, less contentious issues being negotiated: the NFLRA wants the NLF to increase the $18.6 million it currently splits among 121 referees. The NFL will only go as high as $19 million. Also, the NFL wants to hire more refs and turn the ones they have into full-time employees.

Wait, wait, wait! Professional NFL refs are part-time employees?

Yup. In fact, a lot of them work other jobs in the offseason. This means that along with the $150,000 they make annually for officiating games, most NFL refs also have a second source of income. And that’s not all: NFL officials work an average 20-25 hours week (not including travel).

However, it’s important to note that NFL refs are paid by the game.

“If an official misses a few games because of a few bad calls, that can cut into compensation. And the NFLRA, like the Chicago Teachers Union, doesn’t want its members’ compensation subject to performance reviews,” Bloomberg Businessweek weeks notes.

Still, an average $150,000 annually for a five-month gig and a second source of income doesn’t sound all that bad. If the NFLRA doesn’t want to budge on proposed pension reform, the NFL will just go with replacements –

Yikes. Why are these replacement refs so bad?

“Well, they’re football officials, too, but while they certainly know the difference between a touchback and a touchdown they’re not used to watching the game at its fastest and most intense level,” the AP reports.

“The major college refs stuck with their usual jobs out of loyalty, leaving the NFL to mine replacements from the lower divisions of the NCAA, minor organizations like the Arena League and retirees from the major college ranks,” the report adds.

As you can tell, these lower-level refs clearly aren’t making the cut. And people are starting to get angry. Real angry. In fact, Monday night’s game and the subsequent fury from fans, players, and the media may be the thing that forces the league into submitting to the NFLRA’s contract terms.

Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter

Front page photo source courtesy the AP. This article has been updated.