Everyone has been talking about the NFL replacement referees and the lockout, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it as well. It’s even gone so far that the Hooters girls are offering to ref your next game. It’s such a big issue in such a big league that it is being used for PR stunts. Obviously, they got the wrong call at the end of Monday Night Football. Obviously, the games have been slower as they’ve been less decisive in making decisions, but let’s go beyond the superficial stuff that is easy to scream about and obvious. Let’s talk about the real issue here which is the battle between the NFL referees and the NFL.
The quality of replacement referees has absolutely nothing to do with the crux of the fight between the NFL and the referees over pensions. This isn’t an unfamiliar fight to most Americans as pensions are a dying breed of retirement vehicle all over the country. I don’t want to get too financially technical here, but there are two basic kinds of retirement plans. One is defined benefit, like a pension, that guarantees a certain benefit at retirement. It will frequently be a percentage of the employee’s final salary depending on years served in a career. A defined contribution plan is one that doesn’t guarantee future benefits, but instead guarantees contributions into investments like a 401(k) during employment.
The pension system is obviously preferable to NFL referees because it provides predictability in retirement. A 401(k) contribution is nicer for the employer because it doesn’t put them on the hook to guarantee anything in the future. It is pretty logical that pension systems have disappeared with the unpredictability of the stock market. Companies could no longer safely get regular returns in the market and decided to contribute to retirement, but let employees manage their own risks.
Isn’t this just the NFL being greedy? They can afford it, right? Absolutely. The NFL can afford it ten times over. Even if the NFL wants to keep its foot down on the pension vs. 401k thing, they could easily afford to throw some additional money at the problem while still maintaining their financial principles. So, while I think the NFL is not being ridiculous to want to move away from the pension system, They probably should have just ponied up with a checkbook on the salary side to make the pension problem go away. Who knows though? Maybe the referees wouldn’t budge on this one issue.
According to reports though, the numbers look like this. According to NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello, “an experienced official could earn more than $200,000 a year by 2018″ under the league’s proposal. On top of that, retirement contributions would have been roughly $20,000 per year. Using those two numbers, that means the employer retirement contribution is about 10%. Now stop and think if any of you has a 10% retirement match in your job, let alone a contribution. I’ve worked in big corporations where they matched each of the first 5% I was willing to save. I’ve also worked at companies that would match 3% for my first 5%. And those were matching scenarios. Here the NFL was going to contribute 10% all by themselves for a group of guys working part time, albeit in a super-high profile position.
10% seems totally fair. For the job and status of these guys, $200,000 per year seems stingy. Would any NFL owners even notice if that number doubled? The answer is obviously not. I understand the NFL fighting for principles and control over quality (isn’t that ironic?) in their fight with the referees labor union, but the position is important enough that it shouldn’t have come to this with those guys making so little. The NFL could have doubled it and at least saved themselves the level of debacle that occurred Monday night.
That’s not to say that the wrong call couldn’t have happened with regular NFL officials. It easily could have. The thing is, that with regular NFL officials, you say they screwed up and you move along. It’s only a three and four day story with replacements.
One final note, is that NFL players and coaches are almost all out of line right now. Regardless of the quality of officiating going on via replacement refs, there’s still no excuse for all the incidents from this past week. Bill Belichick, Jack Del Rio, Kyle Shanahan and the rest are all guilty of making this even worse than it had to be. One thing that stands true regardless of who is wearing the striped shirt is that they aren’t going to change calls, are trying their best, and should be treated with respect because of basic humanity.
All this extra-curricular garbage isn’t helping anyone and the whole game is worse for it.