By Jeffrey Stern (Published in the January 2013 issue of Referee Magazine)
*To view the magazine-formatted version of the Lockout story, click HERE
Late on the evening of Sept. 24, 2012, three men enjoy a nightcap at a New York City hotel. On the TV, the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers are battling it out on “Monday Night Football.” The trio — Scott Green and Jeff Triplette, NFL referees and the president and vice president, respectively, of the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) and Mike Arnold, the group’s legal counsel — are taking a break from discussions with the NFL aimed at ending the three-month-old lockout of NFL officials.
Their casual discussion comes to a halt when, on the screen, the game ends with one of the most controversial calls in NFL history. Replacement officials rule a simultaneous catch, giving a touchdown to Seattle rather than an interception to Green Bay. Within seconds, their cell phones are buzzing with calls from NFLRA members watching the game, certain that the egregiously incorrect call will hasten their return to the field.
They also take a call from the NFL, confirming that negotiations will resume in the morning. Two days later, the sides reach a tentative agreement on a new eight-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA), ending the lockout.
Here is how it all went down.
Triplette spoke exclusively to Referee on the record on behalf of the union. Jeff Pash, NFL executive vice president and chief legal counsel, presented the league’s viewpoint. It was one of few interviews he granted.
The two sides began formal negotiations in October 2011. Triplette said the existing CBA called for talks to begin in the spring of 2011, but at that time the league’s focus was on agreeing to a CBA with the NFL Players Association. “When they got that settled in the summer (of 2011),” Triplette said, “we finally got together for our first session.”
Lead negotiators for the officials were Triplette; Green; Arnold; Tim Millis, NFLRA executive director; and back judge Tony Steratore, who serves on the association’s board and its negotiating committee.
Representing the NFL were Pash; Ray Anderson, executive vice president of football operations; David Gardi, NFL legal counsel; F. David Coleman, director of officiating; and Doug O’Connell, vice president of compensation and benefits. Carl Johnson, vice president of officiating, was not part of the negotiating team because it is not part of his duties. “Similar to coaches not negotiating player contracts,” explained Greg Aiello, NFL senior vice president of communications.
Others, including Commissioner Roger Goodell and representatives of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, sat in at various times as well.
Pash also represented the league in the two previous negotiations with the NFLRA. The last CBA, signed in 2006, was achieved with relative ease. The 2012 situation was similar to 2001, when the league locked out the officials and replacements took the field.
“The thing about 2001 is it was overshadowed by the (9/11) terrorist attacks,” Pash said. “We had the terrorist attacks early in the regular season, then we took a week off, and … in that two-week interim, we reached an agreement with the (NFLRA) to bring them back.”
As in any CBA, compensation was a part of the 2012 discussions. In particular, the officials’ game fees and the type of pension were at issue. But that was the tip of the iceberg.
“Economic issues tend to dominate the discussion, on the outside, at least,” Pash said. “But from the perspective of the owners, the non-economic issues were actually more important. Those included things like the proposal we had to hire some number of full-time officials (and) the proposal we had to hire additional officials to sort of serve as a bench, if you will, as a training development tool.”
The “reserve squad” was a contentious issue. According to profootballtalk.com (PFT), Anderson broached the topic at a Sept. 4 meeting with NBC producers and broadcasters.
Arnold responded to that report by contacting PFT via email. “The concept of hiring an additional 21 officials was raised for the first time by the NFL by a letter dated July 19, 2012,” Arnold wrote. “It proposed that the NFL could hire 21 additional officials but not pay them — it wants the current 121 officials to pay them. This is not fair or reasonable and demonstrates that it is a negotiating ploy not a serious proposal.”
The NFLRA also desired codification of issues apart from finances. “We spent a good bit of time talking about the training program that had started under Bill Lovett, and preserving and enhancing that program for existing officials,” Triplette said.
The training program is under the auspices of nine former NFL officials, covering each officiating position and representing a combined 265 years of total service. Prominent on the training staff are legendary referees Jerry Markbreit and Red Cashion.
“All of these retired NFL officials were kind of a confidential training resource for officials on the field,” Triplette said. “So that if you had a problem or you wanted to talk to someone that wasn’t a supervisor and evaluating you, there were some folks that had great expertise. We wanted to be able to continue that program.”
While Triplette said the league didn’t indicate it wanted to eliminate the trainers, there was discussion about modifying the program.
“The league felt, ‘If we’re paying for this, we at least ought to have some input into who the trainers are,’” Triplette said. “They had some ideas how they wanted it to evolve, and of course we had some other ideas. Our big one was to preserve the confidentiality, and make sure there were no written reports. The training program was not something that would be used to figure out how you terminate somebody.”
Another sticking point was an NFLRA proposal to remove Goodell from the loop when it comes to disputes involving officials.
“The commissioner … has a very significant authority with respect to disciplinary matters, and with respect to dispute resolution,” Pash said. “There were proposals basically to eliminate that authority or very sharply limit it in certain contexts. That was something that was just not going to be acceptable to our ownership, because they felt as though everyone should be operating under a common set of rules — owners, coaches, team staff and game officials. They were not prepared to change that simply for one category of employee, so that was a significant issue that we had to work our way through.”
The sides met periodically throughout the fall and winter. Storm clouds began to form in spring of 2012. The NFLRA negotiating committee met with owners Arthur Blank (Atlanta Falcons), Bob McNair (Houston Texans) and Clark Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs).
“The meeting didn’t last very long,” Triplette recalled. “Both sides had stated their positions, and at that point it looked like we were pretty far apart on some pretty significant issues.”
The CBA expired on May 31. The lockout was on.
The NFL began looking for replacements before the lockout began. ESPN reported that Ron Baynes, officiating recruitment coordinator, sent an email to scouts on May 3, directing them to contact collegiate officials who had either retired or who had not been rehired by their leagues, or other potential candidates. Ironically, Baynes was looking to hire officials to step in for his sons, Rusty and Allen, who were among the locked-out NFL officials.
According to Aiello, “We began the process of hiring and training replacements to ensure that there would be no disruption to NFL games. … The non-union officials were all experienced football officials at various levels.”
Before the season, Green gave a warning. He told USA Today, “The folks that are going to be on the field are not NFL-quality officials that fans, players and coaches are used to seeing. … If calls aren’t being made, there will probably be additional things going on out on the field and that potentially could lead to … player-safety issues.”
Most of the replacements in 2001 were officials from the major collegiate conferences. The NFL could not dip into those ranks this time, in large measure because several of the coordinators of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conferences are current or former NFL officials. To assist the NFL by signing on as a replacement would mean losing 2012 assignments and possibly beyond.
Each replacement signed an officiating agreement dated June 2, 2012, that included the following provisions:
- $5,000 if the official attended league training clinics, passed a physical and passed a background check.• $500 per day for each clinic or training camp session attended.
- $2,000 per preseason game. An official who worked a preseason game was guaranteed three more game fees. (For the regular season, replacements signed a different contract. Game fees for the regular season were raised to $3,500 for referees, $3,000 for the other six officials and $2,000 for alternates.)
- Coach airfare, ground transportation, hotel rooms and $75 per diem.
- Two tickets per game.
- Two hats, two shirts (one long-sleeved, one short-sleeved), one pair of officiating pants, a pair of shoes, flags and beanbags. (The agreement specified the replacements were to return those items when their employment ended. The league later rescinded that order.)
In July, the NFL conducted three training clinics for the replacements, two in Dallas, one in Atlanta. There were approximately 300 applicants.
Starting with the preseason, to help the replacements navigate the NFL’s complicated penalty enforcements and timing rules, the league put an eighth official, another replacement, on the sideline. Information and instruction from a member of the NFL officiating department stationed in the press box was relayed to the onfield officials through the alternate, who was outfitted with a headset.
When training camps opened, the NFL issued a memo to players, coaches and other team personnel that it was “imperative that your entire staff welcomes these officials and provides them with an environment that maximizes their training opportunities and encourages their development.” The memo also had talking points — scripted responses — that could be used when comments on the lockout were sought by the media.
Criticism of the replacements began right after the preseason opener. In an interview on WSCR-AM in Chicago, Fox Sports officiating analyst and former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira had pointed comments about one referee in particular.
“They’ve tried to say that Craig Ochoa, who worked the (Hall of Fame) game, was a (major college) official, that he worked in the Big Ten,” Pereira said. “He didn’t work in the Big Ten. He’s not been a major college official.”
Ochoa is the highway commissioner for the township of Hanover, Ill. His biography on its website lists him as a “professional football and basketball referee working mostly in the Big 10 Football Conference.”
The Big Ten Conference confirmed that Ochoa was never a member of its football officiating staff.
Aiello told ESPN that the replacements “have backgrounds similar to current NFL officials.”
Arnold, in the same story, disputed those assertions: ”It is unfortunate that as referees’ responsibilities are expanded that the NFL would jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game by seeking amateur, under-qualified referees to administer professional games.”
Pereira added that further proof of Ochoa’s unfitness to work in the NFL was that he had been fired from the Lingerie Football League (LFL), a circuit featuring scantily clad women playing an indoor version of the game. LFL Commissioner Mitchell Mortaza didn’t name names but released a statement that read in part, “Due to several onfield occurrences of incompetent officiating, we chose to part ways with a couple (officials who) apparently are now officiating in the NFL.”
Another hire that raised eyebrows was the selection of Shannon Eastin, who became the first woman to officiate an NFL game. In her 16 years as an official, the highest level she had worked was the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a Football Championship Subdivision league one step below the Football Bowl Subdivision.
But what alarmed many was the fact that Eastin was a professional gambler. She had participated in a number of tournaments, including a 17th-place finish in an event during the 2007 World Series of Poker. The CBA that expired in May included a prohibition against gambling by officials. The subject was not covered in the agreement with replacements. But in this post-Tim Donaghy world, the idea of even a replacement official with a gambling history led many to question whether Eastin should be working in the NFL.
The league was aware of Eastin’s gambling. Michael Signora, NFL vice president of football communications, told PFT, “Past participation in an event such as a poker tournament does not disqualify a person from consideration as an NFL official.”
Two other officials came under fire for perception problems. Jeff Sadorus worked a Seattle game although he had been on the team’s payroll as an official for scrimmages. There is no evidence that Sadorus showed favoritism to the Seahawks in the game. Brian Strapolo was pulled from his New Orleans-Carolina assignment on gameday because his Facebook page indicated he was an unabashed Saints fan.
Referee requested an interview with the NFL’s Anderson for information on the selection, training and qualifications of the replacements, but the request was declined.
The Regular Season
The replacements received kudos from the top for their work in the first week of the regular season. “Our officials did a more than adequate job last night,” Goodell said after the Thursday night season opener. “I think we’ve proven we can train officials, get them up to NFL standards, and we’ve done that in a three-month period. These officials will get even better as time goes by.”
As the rest of the first week played out, TV announcers, while not effusive in their praise, did not heap criticism on the replacements, either. After the lockout ended, however, at least one analyst said that was by design.
On Dan Patrick’s radio show, Fox’s John Lynch said the NFL encouraged broadcast teams to “go easy” on the officials. “I know Week 1 the league kind of duped every network and called and said, ‘Hey we’re close to a deal so have your guys go easy,’” Lynch said. “And so that was kind of the edict from up top.”
But as the season progressed and the lockout dragged on, the era of good feeling came to an abrupt halt. Calls were dissected, scrutinized and ultimately demonized by fans, media, coaches and players.
Emotions boiled over during games on Sept. 23. New England Coach Bill Belichick was fined $50,000 for making contact with an official following his team’s loss to Baltimore and Washington Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan was fined $25,000 for chasing officials off the field after the Redskins’ loss to Cincinnati. Other coaches were shown on telecasts berating officials, though none was fined.
That led the league to issue a memo reminding teams that unsportsmanlike conduct would not be tolerated. Anderson told ESPN, “We contacted them to remind them that everyone has a responsibility to respect the game. We expect it to be adhered to this weekend and forevermore.”
Play became increasing rough in the intervening weeks. Some of the hits were flagged and others were not. The perceived inability of the replacements to control the games led the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) to send two letters to the league, urging a resolution to the lockout.
A letter to Pash dated Sept. 5 from Tom DePaso, NFLPA general counsel, asserted the NFLRA would “take appropriate action to protect our members” if the union determined the replacements could not ensure the health and safety of the players.
A second missive, titled, “Your Lockout of the NFL Referees and the Negative Impact on Football,” was posted Sept. 23. NFLPA President Domonique Foxworth and New Orleans quarterback and NFLPA vice president Drew Brees were among those signing the letter, which read in part, “Your decision to lock out officials with more than 1,500 years of collective NFL experience has led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity.”
The NFL’s Johnson declined a request to discuss the evaluation and performance of the replacements. However, Pash said the league was pleased. “Our own perception is that the replacements performed really in an entirely satisfactory way, and about what you would expect,” he said. “I think no one could have possibly expected them to perform at the level of the regulars. We certainly didn’t.”
Pash and Triplette acknowledged the negotiations had a sharper, nastier edge than those in 2006. “Sometimes in a negotiation things get said, and you probably wish they hadn’t been said,” Triplette said. “I think both sides probably had some of those on occasion.”
For the most part, NFLRA members avoided public comment on all things lockout. “We decided early on that it was probably best that Mike Arnold be the principal spokesperson for us,” Triplette said. “We made sure that those were strategic in nature and very specific when we wanted to have that happen,” Triplette added. “It’s more or less along the lines of controlling the message that we wanted to convey, and having a single person do that for us.“
The NFL wanted the nine position trainers — Markbreit, Cashion, Ron Botchan, Ben Montgomery, Dean Look, Tom Fincken, Bill Schmitz, Jim Quirk and Sid Semon — to assist in the clinics. But when they refused out of loyalty to the NFLRA members, they were told their services were no longer needed.
When word of that action broke, Markbreit was besieged by interview requests. The trainers are not voting NFLRA members and thus had no official spokesman. Markbreit became the de facto voice of the trainers as well as the union and sharply criticized the league for the lockout. His strongest comments appeared in an interview with USA Today published Sept. 21. Markbreit said the replacements’ inability to keep games under control jeopardized player safety. “My only conclusion,” Markbreit said, “is that (NFL executives) just don’t care.”
Negative comments were being issued by the league as well. PFT reported that at the aforementioned September meeting with TV personnel, Anderson claimed some officials become complacent once they know they won’t get a postseason assignment and that, while some officials are in condition when the season begins, they gain weight and fall out of shape by the end.
Anderson wrote a guest editorial for the Sept. 26 edition of USA Today. Anderson offered that the “short-term discomfort” caused by the player lockout of 2011 led to a harmonious settlement. “We have approached the dispute with the game officials union with a similar game plan to achieve long-term stability and improve our officiating,” Anderson wrote.
Anderson took aim at the NFLRA members when he added, “No one wants to see the outcome of a game determined by an official’s call, but it has happened several times in the past. Officiating is never perfect.”
On Sept. 24, it was far from perfect, and it resulted in the most talked-about and debated call in recent memory.
Week 3 of the season concluded with that nationally televised game between Green Bay and Seattle. Green Bay held a 12-7 lead with eight seconds remaining in the game. Seattle had the ball, fourth and 10, at the Packer 24 yardline.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson took a shotgun snap, dropped back, then sprinted to his left. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, he heaved a pass to the end zone. In football parlance, it’s known as a Hail Mary: throw the ball and pray a teammate catches it.
In the end zone were four Green Bay defenders and two Seattle receivers. As the ball neared the cluster of players, Seattle’s Golden Tate gave Packer Sam Shields a two-handed shove from behind, sending Shields to the ground. Green Bay’s M.D. Jennings, the player in the rear of the grouping, leaped and got his hands on the ball. Tate in effect caught Jennings, wrapping his arms around the opponent and getting at least a partial grip on the ball.
Side judge Lance Easley arrived at the pile a few seconds ahead of back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn. Easley looked at the pile, glanced at Rhone-Dunn and threw his hands in the air to signal a touchdown. At the same instant, Rhone-Dunn gave the stop-the-clock signal. While time had expired, that signal is proper when an official believes he and a crewmate need to confer before arriving at a decision. Bedlam broke out with Jennings and Tate still grappling while Seattle players swarmed the end zone to congratulate their teammate.
Instant replay is used on all scoring plays; thus, the call was subject to being reversed. However, referee Wayne Elliott determined there was no indisputable visual evidence to overturn the call on the field. The touchdown stood and Seattle won.
The NFL released a statement three days after the game, affirming the call but noting that Tate should have been called for offensive pass interference for shoving Shields.
Despite the NFL’s affirmation, few non-Seahawk fans believed it was a correct call. For the next 48 hours, it was impossible to watch TV, pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio without seeing or hearing about the call.
Not only was Easley seen over and over covering the play, he later made appearances on The NFL Today and the Today Show. Any time he has been interviewed, he has maintained his call was correct.
The national outrage reached a fever pitch. Ending the lockout became not so much a wish as a demand.
Negotiations had been ongoing for more than a week before a final deal was struck.
“We had been meeting I would say for the better part of 10 days,” Pash said, “close to on a daily basis, either meeting or phone conversations. My own feeling is that we were very likely — not 100 percent — but we were very likely to come to an agreement that week.”
Triplette agreed, saying, “We were in very sensitive negotiations prior to that Monday night. … We were on the road to probably reaching an agreement. Was it the agreement that we ended up with? That’s hard to say.”
In a nutshell, these are the key points of the new CBA:
- Five-year continuation of the defined benefit retirement plan.
- A ratification bonus of $2.5 million to be distributed based on seniority, either as a 401k deposit or cash. The payment equaled what the league saved by using non-union officials.
- An average defined contribution of $22,000, based on seniority, starting in 2017 and continuation of the current 401k match contribution of $3,750 per year.
- Hiring of seven NFLRA members as full-time employees. “In terms of who the full-time officials will be, that’s up in the air,” Pash said. “I don’t know who they are at this point. I would expect it’s much more likely that it will be implemented for the 2013 season.”
- Continuation of the trainer program in its previous form.
- Formation of a labor-management team to handle disputes and work together on officiating improvement.
There will be a “reserve list” of officials, but they will be officials identified as future prospects. Triplette said the idea of sitting “struggling” officials died. “Officials don’t get better sitting on the sidelines. You also don’t sit down Peyton Manning when he throws three interceptions. When it got serious in the last week, I think the commissioner came to the realization that we, just like him, want to see the game get better. There are ways we can do this without using a hammer.”
The agreement is for eight years, longer than any previous CBA. Both sides see benefits in that.
“The league wanted a longer term deal than we wanted, but we got some things that we wanted in exchange for that longer term deal,” Triplette said. “The league has … stability, and our members have stability in knowing this thing is not going to last just five or six years.”
Said Pash, “We’re more and more moving toward longer term deals with key partners and participants in our business. I think, frankly, we would’ve signed a longer deal if they had wanted to. It would give us enough time so that everyone could get their blood pressure back to a normal level before we had to gear up for another round of negotiations, and also because we had a longer term deal it allowed us to say to our ownership, we can go another year or so on maintaining the pension plan in place to allow a longer period of time to transition out.”
The league was able to get the NFLRA to back off its demand that Goodell be taken out of the officials’ discipline loop. Triplette said the union wanted those cases heard by someone more independent of the league heirarchy as opposed to the man at the top. But practicality ruled the day in that case. “The commissioner said, ‘I don’t understand why we’re spending time on this. I’ve been the commissioner six years and I’ve never heard one of these grievances,’” Triplette recalled.
The CBA had yet to be approved by the NFLRA members, but the association’s board unanimously endorsed it. Goodell insisted that, in order to reach an accord, the regular officials had to work all Week 4 games, including the one the next night in Baltimore. That posed a potential problem for both sides. If the NFLRA did not ratify the CBA at its Sept. 28-29 meeting in Dallas, seven members would have worked while the others remained sidelined. The league could have faced a situation in which NFL officials worked one game but replacements worked the other 14. Moreover, with a Saturday vote, the league would not have had time to dispatch replacements to cover the remaining games.
Gene Steratore’s crew was assigned the Thursday game, in part because of proximity and convenience; he could drive from his home near Pittsburgh to Baltimore. Some other members of his crew, however, were unable to work due to business or other commitments. Several late-night phone calls were made and the openings were filled.
“(The NFL) had identified several crews that were in close proximity, where most of the crew members could probably get there on an early morning flight to get to the game site,” Triplette said.
Steratore and his crew were greeted with a thunderous standing ovation from more than 70,000 fans. Two days later, the officials approved the CBA by a 112-5 vote.
The replacements were paid for Week 4 despite the settlement. They returned home to work high school or college games. Many, like Easley, did interviews to describe the experience. When asked by The New York Times about the criticism heaped upon the replacements, Sadorus evoked a higher power. “Everyone wanted perfection,” he said, “but come on. The last guy who was perfect, they nailed to a cross. And he wasn’t even an official.”
There was joy and relief among the officials that they were going back to work, but there was anger and bitterness as well. Anderson, whose comments throughout the lockout infuriated the NFLRA, was not greeted warmly in Dallas.
An official at the meeting, who requested anonymity, said Anderson’s comments kept the union unified and committed to its positions. And the hard feelings toward him will not go away any time soon.
“Ray spoke when we voted on the ratification and we came back on that Saturday morning for the vote,” the official said. “Immediately after the vote they had a mini clinic for a couple of hours. He spoke at the beginning of that clinic, and there was dead silence in the room. That tells you all you need to know.”
PFT reported it is likely Anderson will be reassigned and given different responsibilities which do not include officiating. Referee was unable to speak to Anderson to confirm or deny that report.
As in Baltimore on that Thursday night, fans in other cities greeted the regular officials with applause and signs welcoming them back. The Oct. 8 issue of Sports Illustrated heralded the settlement with a cover photo and feature story on uberbuff referee Ed Hochuli. The cover carried the line, “Oh, Now You Love Us.” Indeed, those inside and outside the game were pleased to see NFLRA members return to the field. From Triplette’s view, that includes the NFL.
“In my opinion, they have a better appreciation for what we do,” he said. “They were very complimentary even before the lockout of our work and what we do. It wasn’t that we were bad. In the end, everybody probably learned something out of this.
“We learned that we have to do a good job and a better job of not only working the game on the field, but also helping folks understand the difficulty of what our job is,” Triplette added. “It’s like in anything: When you do it well, folks get accustomed to you doing it well and they don’t appreciate how well someone does it until you don’t do it anymore.”
Jeffrey Stern is senior editor of Referee. He is a veteran high school and college football official.
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