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Holding pattern

Sports | The NFL's referee lockout is penalizing the game

Issue: "Reassessing the genome," Oct. 6, 2012

Last year, the NFL owners took on the players union in a labor dispute that threatened the 2011 season. This year, the owners have locked horns with the referees union in a labor dispute that threatens the game’s integrity. Until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, the league has locked out the referees, enlisting a hodgepodge of replacement officials from college conferences and the Arena League. Fans have witnessed a sharp increase in missed calls and rules confusion.

In the first week alone, referees ruled incorrectly on a timeout situation that might have changed the outcome of Arizona’s 20-16 victory over Seattle and missed a blatant block-in-the-back penalty during a 75-yard punt return that should have nullified the play in San Francisco’s 30-22 win over Green Bay. The missed penalty prompted Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to express “disbelief” and remark that officials “have to understand the rules.”

Despite the missed calls, the pain of a referee work stoppage pales compared to a player strike, lowering urgency for resolution. Here’s a look at past labor disputes involving referees:

2009—NBA referee lockout 

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The NBA and the referees union reached an agreement to end a month-long lockout just days before the start of the regular season. Pressure to end the dispute was high due to memories of a 1995 lockout that ruined much of the season.

1999—MLB umpires mass resignation

Without the recourse of a strike at their disposal, more than 50 umpires resigned in an effort to pressure MLB into drafting a new labor agreement. But the tactic backfired when the league simply accepted the resignations and hired new umpires.

1995—NBA referee lockout 

In an ironic twist, the NBA locked out its officials in a dispute over whether to grant the union power to strike. For 68 days, replacement referees proved so disastrous that players who had once chastised the real officials begged for their return. When the NBA finally granted officials the right to strike, they returned to work to cheers from fans and players alike.

1993—NHL Officials Association strike 

Demanding increases in pensions and playoff compensation, the union went on strike for 17 days. The NHL hired replacement officials, but the quality of the game dropped so drastically that the league gave in to union demands.

Calhoun's hip check

Jim Calhoun
Associated Press/Photo by Charles Krupa
Jim Calhoun

The third most successful men’s basketball coach in NCAA history has called it quits. Jim Calhoun retired Sept. 13 after 40 years and 873 victories. He spent the final 26 years of his career at UConn where he led the Huskies to national titles in 1999, 2004, and 2011. Though two years remained on his contract, Calhoun elected to retire after a bicycle crash in early August fractured his hip. 

Calhoun, 70, was not always easy to like. The fiery coach often sparred with reporters and played the curmudgeon. He sat out three games last year due to recruiting violations. And the Huskies are banned from this upcoming season’s playoffs due to discrepancies in how the team measured the academic progress of its players. Calhoun maintains he had no knowledge of such shenanigans, but the most powerful man in Connecticut must bear some responsibility.

Still, the Hall-of-Fame coach leaves the game with his legacy largely intact. He will be remembered for transforming a small program with limited resources into a national power. Some might also recall that Calhoun routinely credited his ability to weather storms to a power beyond himself. “If you don’t have faith when the tough times come, you won’t have a core, a foundation to lean on,” the devout Catholic said in 2010, having lived through prostate cancer and two cases of skin cancer. “I think faith is what gets us through difficult times.” —Mark Bergin

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