Last night, a bad call by the NFL's replacement referees cost the Green Bay Packers a win, and everyone's talking about it. Everyone except for you, hiding in your office, unable to understand 50 percent of the words in the previous sentence, faking a coughing fit every time one of your coworkers passes by. Well, non sports fan, we're here to save you. This is everything you need to know about the NFL's replacement referee fiasco and last night's crazy Green Bay-Seattle game — tailored for people who've never watched a minute of professional football.
Let's start with the basics. What, uh, sport, are we talking about here, exactly?
We're talking about American Football. Brown ball, kind of oval-shaped.
Okay, and what happened on Football last night?
The Seattle Seahawks played the Green Bay Packers. The Seahawks are down by five going into the game's final seconds, and Russell Wilson throws a Hail Mary —
Whoa, there, tiger. What?
The Seahawks' ball-throwing man threw the ball toward the point-scoring area, but the Packers' tackling man caught the ball before the Seahawks' ball-catching man did (an "interception"). This should have ended the game with the Packers winning. Instead, the referees — after some initial confusion — declared that the Seahawks' ball-catching man had caught the ball and scored ("touchdown"), ending the game and making the Seahawks the winners.
Why did the referees make such a bad call?
Because they're not real, N.F.L.-level referees — they're replacements.
The N.F.L. has locked out the referees' union in an attempt to force the refs to accept new employment terms. While the league and the union negotiate over things like retirement plans and raises, they've brought in a new crop of officials: low-level college and high-school referees, mostly. (Apparently one of the replacement refs was fired from the Lingerie Football League for incompetence.)
But after a huge embarrassment like this, the league will have to settle with the referees' union quickly? Right?
Not necessarily. The referees are terrible, and changing the outcomes of games, but ratings are higher than ever, and the N.F.L. is rolling in dough. People love football! And the truth is that they might like it even more if there were no referees, just huge guys chasing slightly smaller guys around the field in order to beat them up.
What would it take to make a deal?
By all accounts the biggest sticking point in the negotiation is the retirement plan: the 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. 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).
There's more, of course. Referees would like more money in the salary pool, currently $18 million distributed among the 121 union referees. (The league has agreed to bump it to $19 million.) The N.F.L. is also angling to hire more refs, and turn ten current officials — all of whom are part-time — into full-time league employees; the union is resistant to both of these changes, fearing for its members' job security and compensation.
Refs are part-time?
Yeah — when the season is over, most of them work other jobs. Walt Coleman is a dairy farmer. Tony Corrente is a high-school teacher. Ed Hochuli is a lawyer/triceps model.
So not only do they make an average of $150,000 a year from the N.F.L., they also have income from their other jobs. That's a lot of money.
Sure. But as the terrible replacements show, it's a difficult, high-profile, essential position in a $9 billion business.
How terrible are the replacements, though? Have they messed up besides last night?
I mean, that's too bad. But it's just a game! At least no one was hurt.
Well, that's one of the problems. Refs are in charge of making sure that players are following the rules; when a lot of those rules relate to player safety, it's important to have competent, commanding people on the field who can make sure those rules are being followed.
Plus, football is only "just a game" to terrorists and hippies. For Real Americans, football is America's Pastime, Subcategory Likely to Cause Brain Injury, and Monday Night Football is its primary showcase. Last night's game was watched by 15.5 million people; gamblers bet something like $250 million dollars, as they do for every Monday Night Football game. Already today, Paul Ryan and President Obama have talked about it. ("I half-think that these refs work part-time for the Obama administration and the Budget Office," Ryan said, showing off his trademark wit.)
Will the N.F.L. do anything about the call from last night?
So what is to be done?