The National Football League's tentatively settled impasse with its on-field officials proved the old saying "You get what you pay for." That wisdom took a while to sink in, but for the integrity of the game this is better late than never.
For three weeks, NFL fans had to endure replacement officials who did their best. Except their best was clearly not good enough. It took a final, controversial play to change the state of negotiations in the lockout and lead to a tentative deal.
The disputed call involved one of the league's most storied franchises, the Green Bay Packers, on "Monday Night Football" no less, the premier showcase for the league. A Packers interception, which would have secured a victory against the Seattle Seahawks, was disallowed, leading Packers fans to say they were robbed.
In fact, the whole league had been robbed by a series of doubtful calls since the season began -- a drawn-out robbery of the confidence of players, coaches and, most of all, fans. The problem was everywhere. In their first home game against the New York Jets, the Steelers faithful booed the officials even more than usual.
The NFL management's notion that the officials were just a bunch of part-timers who didn't deserve big salaries has been debunked by experience. In truth, the rules of the game have become so arcane as to approach the theological (did the player have control of the ball when he made the catch, did his right toe stay in bounds, etc.?). In partisan stadiums, these calls require courageous and competent officials, not timid and befuddled ones.
If members of the NFL Referees Association approve the tentative contract over the next couple of days, the worth of seasoned officials will be properly recognized.
The proposed agreement calls for their salaries to increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019. The contract also stipulates new retirement benefits and, starting with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option to hire some officials on a full-time basis to work year-round.
The NFL is a money-making machine and these new benefits are unlikely to kill the goose laying the golden footballs. That goose had been in danger from bad officiating. No longer, because you get what you pay for.