Goodell apologizes for refs lockout; Steelers express relief
Negotiations between the NFL and referees' union were at an impasse until replacement officials alienated Green Bay, arguably the bedrock of the league's most passionate fans.
The sides — at odds since the league locked out officials in June — reached an agreement late Wednesday night, 48 hours after the officiating crew made a controversial ruling on the final play that lifted Seattle to a stunning victory and left the Packers, their fans and many NFL observers bitter and disenchanted.
While players expressed concern about the integrity of a billion-dollar business, both sides accelerated negotiations, in part, because of safety issues involving players and a potentially increased hostile environment for replacement officials, particularly in Green Bay.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, who denied that Monday night's debacle ignited a sense of urgency to cement a deal, apologized for the lockout.
“Obviously when you go through something like this, it's painful for everybody,” Goodell said. “Most importantly, it's painful for fans. We're sorry to have to put fans through that. Sometimes you have to go through something like that in the short term for the right agreement for the long term.”
Union officials — including Gene Steratore of Washington, Pa. — returned to work Thursday night in Baltimore. However, the tentative deal still must be ratified by 51 percent of the union's 121 members scheduled to vote Friday and Saturday.
The tentative eight-year pact increases referees' salaries from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013 and to $205,000 by 2019. Perhaps the most relevant compromise is allowing Goodell to replace underperforming officials at the league's discretion.
“When you look at referees, it's about safety,” Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks said. “Even the regular officials will miss calls. There is an element of human error in this game. I think (replacement officials) did their jobs the best they could.”
The replacement officials were lambasted for three weeks for inconsistency, incompetence and adversely affecting the flow and quality of games. While NFLPA executives encouraged its members to avoid confrontations with officials, several coaches were fined for verbally and physically engaging referees:
• Patriots coach Bill Belichick was fined $50,000 for grabbing an official's arm Sunday after Baltimore's controversial last-second field goal wasn't reviewed.
• Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was docked for $25,000 for what the league called “abuse of officials” in the Redskins' loss to Cincinnati on Sunday.
• Denver's John Fox was fined $30,000 and assistant Jack Del Rio $25,000 on Monday for incidents involving the replacement officials the previous week.
Yet it wasn't until the 48th game that the officials indisputably dictated the outcome of a game — Seattle's bizarre 14-12 win over Green Bay on “Monday Night Football.”
“I feel bad for the heat the replacement refs were taking,” Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley tweeted on Thursday. “But at least this probably won't happen again.”
Players league-wide acknowledged on Twitter that they expect the quality of officiating to improve. However, some suggested union officials aren't immune to making similar mistakes — save the egregious error committed in Seattle.
“There have been calls regular officials have consistently missed,” Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. “The officials have to protect the players and the welfare of the game.”
Steelers' safety Ryan Clark, an outspoken critic of Goodell, had an indifferent attitude about the officials.
“I don't pay attention to any of them, to be perfectly honest,” Clark said. “The (regular) officials are more vocal because they're more confident in their jobs and the understanding of the game. ... I think it's tough when calls dictate wins and losses. If you're hurting teams' chances of making the playoffs, it hurts the integrity of the NFL.”
Inexperience had been a subject of concern for NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. Smith earlier had sent a memo to union members stating concern for player safety.
“The decision by the NFL owners to lock out the referees jeopardizes your health and safety,” Smith noted, adding that union officials accounted for a combined 1,500 years of on-field experience. “This decision ... simply made the workplace less safe.”
Even though Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood was reluctant to blame replacement officials for missing what he believed was an apparent chop block during Oakland's game-clinching drive Sunday, he agreed their inability to manage the game and communicate with players left him vulnerable to a potential career-ending injury.
“I'm blessed to be walking,” Hood said. “I couldn't feel my legs after it happened. But if we worry about calls, we can't do our jobs — and it doesn't matter who's officiating the games.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.