New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was already in bed Monday night by the time the final play of the Green Bay Packers-
Seattle Seahawks game unfolded on the television screen in front of him.
Kraft, weary after arriving home at 2:30 a.m. from his team’s loss Sunday night in Baltimore, had no way to know then that the botched call by the National Football League’s replacement officials, which gave the Seahawks a game-winning touchdown, would spark a national furor so intense that even President Obama would weigh in with an opinion. But Kraft certainly sensed that the leaders of the nation’s most popular and prosperous sport had a problem on their hands.
“I knew it wasn’t something we wanted,” Kraft said by telephone Thursday. “But sometimes with difficult things, some good comes out.”
For the NFL and its fans, the good is an eight-year labor pact with the NFL Referees Association that was completed Wednesday night, in time to send the replacements home and get regular officials back on the field Thursday evening in Baltimore. The deal was reached less than 48 hours after the chaotic ending of Monday’s game in Seattle.
It was a turbulent two days for the NFL, with Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s attorney, Jeff Pash, fielding phone calls from owners and returning to the bargaining table to hammer out the details of the agreement.
“There’s no question that game was the final straw,” said one owner, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing the internal ownership dynamics behind the deal. “I still think it probably would have gotten done. I just don’t know if it would have gotten done in time for this week’s games.”
That opinion wasn’t universally held. One person with knowledge of the league’s view of the negotiations said he was convinced before Monday night’s fiasco that the NFL and the regular referees were headed toward a deal that “more than likely” would have come this week anyway.
By many accounts, the officials’ handsome salaries were less an obstacle than the owners’ insistence on long-term change in the way they put away pension money for the part-timers who keep order during the organized mayhem of NFL games. The officials currently earn an average of about $150,000 for 20 games.
The owners, many of them business titans who made their fortunes outside football, wanted to move the 121 officials in the NFL Referees Association to a 401(k) retirement system in which labor and management share contributions, instead of the lucrative defined benefit system the owners fund now. All those dollars are just a tiny fraction of the NFL’s more than $9 billion in revenue, a figure that is expected to grow significantly in coming years.
The owners also wanted more freedom to replace officials they believe aren’t performing well.
Then came Monday night’s debacle in Seattle. The furor it provoked certainly provided a healthy incentive for the owners to settle their labor dispute. One league official said he was told by a relative who is a Seahawks fan that it was a great call, then braced for a firestorm. “It was going to be Topic A,” the league official said.
By Tuesday, the story had gone quickly beyond the sports realm, filling the airwaves of the morning network news shows.
“Not much surprises me about what happens in the NFL and the influence and attention that it gets. . .This moved quickly into mainstream media,” Goodell said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “That is a signal of the influence of the game in today’s society.”
Goodell and Pash had been in regular contact throughout the referee negotiations with a four-member advisory panel of influential owners—the Atlanta Falcons’ Arthur Blank, the Houston Texans’ Robert McNair, the New York Giants’ John Mara and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Clark Hunt. League officials had spoken with about 20 owners who’d attended committee meetings last week in New York. And they heard from owners in the aftermath of the Monday night game. Some were alarmed by what they’d seen.
“I certainly felt an urgency [to finish a deal] before Monday,” said the owner who asked to speak anonymously. “But after Monday, I felt more urgency. I didn’t see how you could go into the weekend [with the replacements]. We were in an impossible position for them to do their jobs with the scrutiny they were under.”
Still, the overwhelming sentiment from the owners to the league, according to a person familiar with the dialogue, wasn’t panic. Stay the course, they told negotiators. Don’t overreact to one call in one game.
“There was not one single owner who ever said, ‘We need to get this settled, whatever it takes.’ Not one single owner,” that person said. In fact, some owners wanted to make no further concessions, even after the fiasco in Seattle.