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The Globe and Mail

NFL won’t budge on goal of crushing officials unless it can save face

It seems silly to both sports fans and non-sports fans, this notion that the NFL is embarrassing itself (as witnessed in Monday's night's game) to save what amounts to $3.2-million in officials' salaries. That's the reported gap between the league and locked-out on-field officials, which amounts to about $100,000 a club each year in a multibillion-dollar industry.

But at the crux of the dispute with the NFL Referees Association and the league are issues that ring familiar throughout business: the reinstatement of a pension plan, pay equity – in this case with the officials in other major professional sports – and what amounts to defending the sanctity of seniority. The NFL would like to limit costs, of course, but it also wants greater control over the administration of officials, and just as no other league in North America has neutered its players association as much as the NFL so, too, does commissioner Roger Goodell want to reduce the officials union into even more of a rump organization.

Goodell and the owners would try to paint it as "quality control," but what it's really about is crushing an opponent. And you really can't blame the NFL owners, because all they do is win. The NFLPA was turned into a toothless, in-house group several stoppages ago; the NFL slithered out of a steroid scandal under the cover of Major League Baseball's inability to deal with the matter in a timely fashion; and it has rolled over all competition when it comes to television ratings and merchandise sales. It is astride the world of North American sports.

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And with this strength comes a resolve: the NFL doesn't move on an issue unless Goodell or the owners sniff a law-suit, as was the case with last year's sudden concern about concussions and helmet-to-helmet hits, which just so happened to coincide with orchestrated attempts on the part of NFL alumni to use the courts to address issues resulting from lousy medical and safety practices of decades past.

It's nice that U.S. President Barack Obama came out Tuesday and said it was time to end the strike, but it's also ultimately meaningless. Is the president going to sue the NFL over lost Fantasy League points? Is some gambler going to take Goodell to court for money lost on a bet? Really – where's the economic imperative in all this at a time of booming TV ratings?

This dispute will end quickly only if somebody figures out how Goodell and the owners can save face.

Monday night's blown call will have significant financial ramifications should the Green Pay Packers not make the playoffs or the Seattle Seahawks somehow sneak in ahead of somebody else, but anybody who thinks there will be marketing or ratings fallouts hasn't been watching. The NFL's only real nightmare scenario is a player suffering a career-threatening injury as a result of a melee or hit resulting from the total loss of control by these replacement officials, especially with the NFLPA making its concerns about player safety known in a written letter.

But the rest of it is just background noise.

That was never more apparent than in the league's response to the call, when replacement officials were blamed really for just one thing: failing to call offensive interference on a Hail Mary pass, the not-so-subtle suggestion being, Hey, the regular guys could have blown that, too.

On the surface, it appears as though the last time a commissioner was this embarrassed was when baseball's Bud Selig sat in his seats at the All-Star Game in Milwaukee – his hometown – and saw the game end in a tie because the managers ran out of players.

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But Selig isn't Goodell. The NFL commissioner can't hear the cries of shame and the wails of football fans wronged. He is dealing with issues familiar to many businesses these days, with one exception: he knows with 100-per-cent certainty that his customers will keep coming back. They always do. He can't hear the controversy for the sounds of the electronic till, or the turnstiles.

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