Locked Out Referees Must Have Loved Sunday's Game

Image Credit: Ed Yourdon, via Flickr

Sunday’s fiasco of a Patriots game versus the Ravens was, according to some, a breaking point for fans frustrated with the NFL’s referee lockout. An impasse between the referees’ union and the league over pay and pensions has left us with replacement refs, who got some justifiably terrible reviews for their numerous and questionable calls on both teams. (For a taste, please watch these two refs make the opposite call at the same time during another game.) Meanwhile, Bill Belichick got some bad reviews himself for erupting at game’s end and grabbing a ref to get his attention.

We were curious how the growing fan outrage might impact the standoff between the league and the officials’ union, so we reached out Peter Carfagna, lecturer on sports law at Harvard Law School and CEO of Magis, LLC, a sports marketing, management and investment company. His take? The longer it lasts, the worse the bargaining position for the league.

1. Initially, at least, a referee lockout puts the NFL in a much better position than a player lockout would (or did):

“I’m stating the obvious, but it’s totally different. Certainly if you don’t have Drew Brees and lockout players playing, and you have replacement players, nobody is going to watch. If a replacement ref blows a call here and there, so be it. That’s just a fan reaction. So the leverage here is obviously very different.

“It would appear to the unobserving eye that the referees were eminently replaceable by those who do it at the college level. One would think …”

2. But that position doesn’t look so great as time goes on:

“Fans could stop going to the games because the integrity of the game is in jeopardy, or they might stop watching because it becomes a fraud, in a way, an unfair or unlevel playing field. And I think we’re beginning to see something close to that when outcomes of games are being impacted.”

3. The longer the lockout, the more the league’s position suffers:

“The fans will start showing more and more the exasperation that can’t be expressed by the players or coaches for fear of being fined or penalized. Ultimately if the fans say it must be resolved, they will find a middle ground in short order.

“I think for all the country to see the game on Sunday night—that was a hugely watched game, and I think the outcome was impacted by the inconsistencies. I really do. I don’t condone what Coach Belichick did, but I can understand how both coaches were frustrated.”

4. Arbitration might be the way out.

“It just seems to me there are some reasonable middle grounds that could be pursued.

“I just see it as a way that so many of these disputes have been handled in all the major leagues. Even if this weren’t sports and you just have collective bargaining lockouts, the president would come in and appoint a mediator. It allows both sides to go in to a good faith negotiation.”

5. All that said, it’s not yet critical.

“They kept calling last night a critical, pivotal game. I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. It’s the third game.’ It’s critical if they miss that field goal call and somebody continues to the playoffs or the Super Bowl. But not really until you’re down to that.”


This interview has been edited and condensed.