It’s a professional referee’s job to ensure that games run smoothly, so it's perhaps no surprise that the absence of refs from this season's NFL games — thanks to contract disputes between the league and the referees' union — has led to almost unprecedented chaos. After three weeks of controversial calls, which culminated in a game-changing decision in a matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers on Monday, news outlets have reported that the referees and the NFL are close to signing a deal. As the lockout approaches its end, it's worth looking back at how it began. What is the dispute about? Who should be blamed? And what does it mean for the future of the football season? Here, everything you need to know about the NFL's referee lockout:
What are the NFL and the referees fighting about?
There are several areas of disagreement, but the biggest sticking point is money. The referees want to stick with a pension plan that was originally negotiated in 2006; the NFL wants to implement a 401(k) plan instead. The NFL's refusal to budge has puzzled many analysts because the cost differential between the pension and the 401(k) is relatively small: Roughly 0.33 percent of the league's annual $10 billion revenue, or $100,000 per team per season — a figure some commentators have called the equivalent of a "rounding error" for the NFL.
Who did the NFL hire to replace the locked-out referees?
A group of less experienced officials culled from smaller markets like the Arena Football League, Divisions II and III of the NCAA, and — in one particularly damning case — the Lingerie Football League (LFL), a far-from-professional league in which women play the game in bras and panties. Fans and commentators have expressed both frustration with this solution and sympathy for the stand-in refs' inexperience.
What do the NFL players think?
The vast majority have sided with the referees. Many players have spoken of their exasperation in post-game interviews, or taken to Twitter, voicing complaints like "I thought I was watching Punk'd" and calling the use of replacements "a slap in the face."
What do sportswriters think?
They're furious. "The NFL used to be the Mona Lisa," says Rick Reilly at ESPN.com, rather grandly, and the referees' strike "is painting a mustache on it." "This may not be the worst mistake a commissioner has made in my lifetime, but it is surely the dumbest," adds Michael Rosenberg at Sports Illustrated. The consensus: The NFL has seriously damaged its integrity, and put its players at risk, to save money that it would barely even notice was gone.
Has the lockout hurt the NFL?
In reputation, yes; in revenue, no. Despite widespread criticism from fans and players, neither viewership nor attendance has declined. In fact, the debate over the Seahawks-Packers game has drawn much attention to the NFL, leading many analysts to conclude that NFL ratings will be up next weekend — if only because of perverse curiosity — which may be why the league hasn't seemed to be in a hurry to cut a deal.
Will the lockout really end soon?
Reports are mixed. According to ESPN.com, an "agreement in principle" is ready, and the remaining points of contention are minor enough that locked-out officials may even be on the field again by Sunday. But the Los Angeles Times countered, quoting an inside source that says "a deal is not as close as has been reported."