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Ten Years Later, the Failed Lessons From the Fail Mary

A decade ago this weekend, replacement referees made one of the worst calls in pro sports history. It should have made us respect the refs; instead, we’re questioning them more than ever.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The embarrassing part of the Fail Mary wasn’t that the replacement refs got the call wrong. They did, of course—even the game’s referee later admitted the Seattle Seahawks’ game-winning touchdown should have been a Green Bay Packers game-ending interception, and the NFL acknowledged there should have been an offensive pass interference call on the play. But officials miss calls all the time, in every league in every sport in every country. You can find articles about the NFL’s “officiating problem,” but you can also find articles about the NBA’s officiating problem, and MLB’s umpiring problem, and the NHL’s officiating problem, and so on and so forth. To err is human—and zebra.

No, the embarrassing part of the Fail Mary was the confusion, the chaos, the lack of control—all of it written on the faces of overmatched replacement refs, broadcast live to the nation on Monday Night Football. The embarrassing part was that everybody involved knew they were wrong and knew they couldn’t fix it. A referee’s main job is to get the call right, but maybe their more important job is to act like they know what they’re doing. And the replacement refs absolutely could not.

Ahead of the 2012 season, the NFL locked out its normal officials, a group represented by the NFL Referees Association. The NFL had made a calculated gamble: The refs’ demands were relatively paltry—additional expenditures of roughly $3.3 million per year, at a time when Roger Goodell was making $44 million per year—but fans universally hate referees, booing and disrespecting them even when their calls are correct. So, the league seemed to figure, why meet the officials’ demands when nobody would miss them?

But from the opening coin toss, it was clear the replacement officials were overmatched. Literally—a replacement ref mishandled the coin toss of the first game of the preseason. These officials, some retirees, some from the lowest ranks of organized football, lacked skill and professionalism. The NFL had to pull one official from working a Saints game hours before kickoff when it learned that he regularly posted on his Facebook page about his unabashed Saints fandom.

Distaste with the replacement refs slowly built over the first three weeks of the 2012 season as players and coaches recognized they were working with inferior officials. In one game, the refs helped the Titans seal a win by marking off 27 yards on a 15-yard penalty in overtime, putting them in range for a game-winning field goal. (The penalty was committed on Tennessee’s 44-yard line; the officials enforced it from Detroit’s 44.) “Players are getting more agitated and coaches are getting more agitated,” said officiating guru Mike Pereira in a New York Times article published on Monday, September 24, 2012. “Week 2 was a disaster,” Pereira continued. “Week 3 is the Titanic.”

As it turned out, they hadn’t hit the iceberg yet. On that Monday night, 10 years ago this Saturday, the Packers played the Seahawks in Seattle. The game came down to a Seahawks Hail Mary, and Seattle’s Golden Tate and Green Bay’s M.D. Jennings fought over the ball in the end zone. The side judge, Lance Easley, who had never officiated games above the junior college level, did not even look over at the back judge, Derrick Rhone-Dunn, a retired official who had worked in the Big 12 Conference. Easley signaled touchdown (he was wrong, it should have been an interception) while Rhone-Dunn signaled touchback (he was also wrong, since the clock had expired and the game was over). “I think if they had been more experienced, they would have talked to each other first,” said Perry Hudspeth, a fellow replacement ref. For 15 or so minutes, ESPN broadcast shots of worried officials, clearly unsure of what to do. The refs ruled for the Seahawks, and the NFL exploded. Packers lineman T.J. Lang sent a tweet asking for the NFL to take money from his salary and give it to the league’s locked-out officials; it became the most retweeted tweet in the young history of Twitter. (The English-language record now belongs to the Nuggs tweet.)

Less than 48 hours after the Fail Mary, management acquiesced, reaching an agreement with the NFL Referees Association on a new collective bargaining agreement. The Fail Mary essentially ended the lockout. That moment revealed a surprising truth: that the NFL’s regular officials, the ones we boo every Sunday, are significantly better than anybody else on the planet at officiating professional football.

In 2014, ESPN ranked the Fail Mary as the no. 1 moment in the history of Monday Night Football. But unlike most officiating blunders, it actually reflects well on the professional referee. Attempting to replace them for just a few weeks led to a massive officiating catastrophe that is still remembered a decade later. Nobody can fill their stripes.

And as soon as the NFL’s regular referees returned to action, we once again began criticizing them. There was a brief moment when everybody from players to coaches to fans applauded the NFL’s regular refs and admitted they’re pretty good, but it ended extremely quickly. It’s like we drunkenly blurted out “I love you!” to someone we can never be in a relationship with—it’s simply best for all parties involved to never ever ever talk about the fact that this happened, even if we know it did, because the ramifications of it are too weird to dive into.

Even post–Fail Mary, NFL fans are more or less perennially mad at the officials. And for good reason—they also screw up, all the time. But still: We know it’s better than the alternative, right? “Occasionally, you’ll see somebody write something about ‘Well, how hard could this job be?’” Ben Austro, founder of NFL officiating blog Football Zebras, told me. “And I’m like, ‘Do you remember 2012? Do you remember how bad it got?’”

Ten years ago, NFL players, coaches, and fans had to confront an uncomfortable truth: That for better or worse, NFL officials are the best option we have. Firing that ref who made an awful call would not make things better—in fact, it would probably make things worse. But that knowledge hasn’t brought us peace of mind. The Fail Mary taught us beyond a shadow of a doubt that the NFL’s refs are the best option—so why are we still so mad?

Green Bay Packers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Green Bay Packers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Green Bay Packers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The most well-known labor actions in professional sports involve the athletes—and for good reason: If there are no players, there are no sports. Fans remember when the 2005 Stanley Cup and the 1994 World Series were canceled, or when the NFL brought in replacement players in 1987. Athlete strikes are perhaps the most high-profile labor actions—I didn’t know what a “union” was until the NBA’s 1998-99 lockout. Player strikes even became the plot of 2000 movie The Replacements, a lighthearted comedy about the evils of organized labor.

But there have probably been more strikes and lockouts featuring officials. MLB umpires have been involved in strikes or lockouts four times, not including a 1999 incident in which union umpires retired en masse. NBA referees have also gone on strike four times, most recently in 2009. MLS refs and minor league baseball umpires have gone on strike. And the NFL’s 2012 lockout of the officials was not its first—the league used replacement refs for Week 1 of the 2001 season while locking out regular officials. (Officials returned to the field when the league returned for Week 2—the lockout could have potentially lasted longer, but both sides seem to have lost interest in cutthroat bargaining after the September 11 attacks. “The events of last week played a big role in helping everybody to put things in a better perspective,” official Walt Anderson told a Houston television station at the time.)

When labor issues exist between leagues and the players, there is a strong incentive by all parties to reach a deal—when there are no games, everybody loses. But time after time, pro sports leagues believe they can keep playing games without their regular officials—and time after time, players and coaches complain about the inferior quality of the replacements. When NBA officials went on strike for the 1977 playoffs, The New York Times noted that the league had seen several “unruly” games with “substitute referees caught in a crossfire of poor officiating charges.” In 1995, Knicks forward Charles Oakley said that “they need five of these guys to equal one of the regular refs.” Players noted an uptick in fights and ejections, one of which led to Chris Webber missing a month with a shoulder injury. In 2006, minor league umpires went on strike. In one unprecedented incident, a Double-A manager pulled his team off the field after three separate bench-clearing brawls. Players complained about strikeouts on balls in the dirt. One player attacked a replacement umpire with a bat after a missed call. “It is absolutely not professional baseball out there,” said the manager of the Double-A Trenton Thunder. “Everybody knows it stinks.”

The issue was heightened in the NFL. When refs were locked out for that one week in 2001, the league primarily used replacements from NFL Europe, as well as the Arena Football League and Division I officials. But the NFL shut down its European operation in 2007, and the arena league experienced a significant decline after the early 2000s, and went bankrupt in 2009. And major college football conferences “refused to allow moonlighting in 2012,” wrote Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. Besides, anybody with a promising future in refereeing feared that they would be labeled as scabs and blackballed for crossing the picket line.

And so in 2012, the NFL scoured the dregs of the officiating world for anybody who had ever worn stripes and a whistle. “They had to come up with quite a few people out of nowhere,” says Austro. “And even to this day, some of them—we still don’t know where they officiated.” An ESPN investigative report uncovered the memo that detailed who the league tried to sign up—officials for whom the “window of opportunity for advancement had pretty much closed.” Former NFL ref Jim Tunney noted that none of the officials hired as replacements were in the pipeline to be hired as future officials—and to date, none have become NFL officials. Some were even officials from the Lingerie Football League, which apparently had a legitimate rulebook to go along with its namesake uniform requirements. But the Lingerie Football League clarified that they had actually fired the refs in question. These were not refs from the sexy football; these were the guys who were not good enough to ref the sexy football.

The replacement refs the NFL did find were being dropped onto a new football planet. They were being asked to officiate from a different rulebook from any they had used before—a very different rulebook from arena ball, or, say, eight-man high school football— and they were working with different colleagues than the ones they normally worked with, at different positions from the ones they normally officiate. And of course, NFL players are significantly bigger and faster and stronger—and therefore harder to officiate—than even high-level college players. NFL refs have the advantages of significant training, familiarity with their crewmates, and experience working at their position; the replacements had none of these.

Their unreadiness was clear well before that notorious Monday night game in Seattle. If it hadn’t been for the Fail Mary, the “replacement ref game” probably would’ve been the Sunday Night Football game between the Patriots and Ravens the night before Seahawks-Packers. That debacle featured 24 penalties for 218 yards. With three minutes to go, John Harbaugh was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after bumping an official while trying to call timeout; fans launched into an absolutely thunderous “BULL-SHIT!” chant. The Ravens won on a field goal that went directly over the right upright. Vince Wilfork immediately ripped his helmet off to scream at the official who made the game-winning field goal call; Bill Belichick chased after an official and grabbed his arm, which resulted in a $50,000 fine for the Pats’ coach.

The Fail Mary play itself was, to be fair, a tough play to officiate. A Hail Mary features a lot of people jostling and jockeying for limited space, and it’s always hard to know who gets possession when two guys are fighting for a ball. But these officials still clearly messed up. First, they missed a blatant pass interference by Seattle’s Golden Tate, who shoved a Green bay defender to the ground. That would’ve made the whole “who caught it” thing irrelevant. Second, Green Bay’s M.D. Jennings clearly caught the ball first. The officials eventually went with a “simultaneous catch” ruling, which is almost never used because it’s almost impossible—it implies that two players caught the ball at the exact same time, neither player a frame earlier. That’s not what happened: Jennings caught the ball, and after much jostling on the ground, the ball ended up with Tate. As the rulebook clearly states, “It is not simultaneous possession if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.”

But Easley was quick to put his hands up and rule touchdown—making it hard for anybody to overturn his ruling. (Easley later wrote a book about the incident called Making the Call: Living With Your Decisions.) The game’s referee, Wayne Elliott, later said that he could tell Jennings caught the ball first while watching replays—but the NFL’s replay official told him to say “the play stands.” (This wasn’t how things were supposed to work—at that time, on-field referees were supposed to determine replay calls, a responsibility that has since flipped.) After 10 agonizing minutes of reviews, Elliott announced that the call stood and the game was over—but even after that, Elliott and a horde of officials were shown gathering and trying to decide something while listening to league officials on a headset. Even though the teams had already gone to the locker rooms, the officials needed to get them to return to the field for an extra point, which was an issue, because the Packers, understandably, had no desire to retake the field after having a win stolen from them. The NFL’s league office, meanwhile, remained silent until well into Tuesday morning. Eventually they released a cop-out of a statement, standing by the call on the field but admitting pass interference should have been called. While the NFL normally puts someone in charge of discussing controversial calls—like the VP of officiatingnobody was willing to sign this statement.

What followed was something exceedingly rare: Widespread public support for the NFL’s regular referees. Everyone from LeBron James to Khloe Kardashian commented on the poor performance of the scabs.

NFL players enthusiastically acknowledged that the normal officials provided a superior product. “These are amateur people doing professionals’ jobs,” said Washington cornerback Josh Wilson. “The product on the field is not being complemented by an appropriate set of officials,” said Aaron Rodgers.

In the midst of the 2012 presidential campaign, both major candidates made statements. Republican Mitt Romney told CNN “I’d sure like to see some experienced referees come back out of the NFL playing fields,” while vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan compared the replacement referees to the Obama administration. Obama tweeted that the lockout needed to end and told ABC, “I’ve been saying for months, we’ve got to get our refs back.

Our refs.” Not the NFL’s refs. Ours, as if they belong to us, as if they were a point of national pride. Have you ever heard someone speak about NFL officials this way? Or, for that matter, officials in any sport?

By Wednesday, the NFL and the NFLRA had reached a deal. Goodell apologized to fans for the performance of the replacement referees, a rare admission that anybody at the NFL had ever done anything wrong. The replacements mainly went back to their small-town officiating jobs. In an interview with GQ, replacement ref Toney Brasuell speculated that “they’re going to bring some of us back. … I think they will.” He was wrong: The league never brought back any of the replacement refs. “None were even put in the development program that came out of that strike,” says Austro. “Everybody on that list, that was the last we heard of them.”

And just one day after the lockout ended, regular referees returned to action. Gene Steratore’s crew received a standing ovation in Baltimore for a Thursday night game against the Browns. “It’s good to be back,” Steratore said during the coin toss. And they’ve stayed back. The NFL and NFLRA reached an agreement on a new CBA in 2019, a year before the expiry of the 2020 deal.

That feeling has understandably evaporated over the years, and for good reason. The refs may be back, but we’re still always dealing with refereeing issues. There was the touchdown Dez Bryant actually did catch but didn’t; the botched pass interference non-call that sent the Rams to the Super Bowl; the many, many unnecessary taunting flags of 2021; and so on and so forth. To be an NFL fan is to be slightly mad at whatever the latest officiating controversy is, all the time.

And often, the thing we’re mad at is not actually the officials themselves. The Dez non-catch stemmed from the NFL’s awkwardly worded catch rule, which officials struggled weekly to properly interpret. Eventually, the league admitted that Dez’s play should have been a catch, and tried to rewrite the rule to match it. The Saints pass interference led to a review system for such calls, which was so ineffective that it was rescinded after just one season. The taunting flags were prompted by the league’s owners (and supported by coaches on the competition committee), who asked officials to strictly enforce the league’s rules because fans were being turned off by all the taunting. (Their take is 100 percent wrong—if anything, I want more taunting.) Sure, there are some massive, legitimate failures by NFL officials, like the inadvertent whistle that gifted the Bengals a touchdown in last year’s playoffs, or the bad holding call that set the Rams up for a Super Bowl–winning touchdown. But more often than not, it seems like the league’s officiating controversies stem from the league itself—from its massive, inscrutable rulebook, its strange policies, and its meddlesome owners. The league creates problems that weren’t there, then struggles to eliminate them.

The NFL’s regular officials may not have been on the field for a Fail Mary. But even with the highest quality refs available, the specter of that Seahawks-Packers debacle from a decade ago still hangs over the league, because it laid bare the source of so many rules-related screw-ups. The underqualified, overmatched replacement officials didn’t just show up on an NFL field by chance: The NFL chose for them to be there. The league was crass enough to presume it could swap out the best officials on the planet for fourth-tier subs without anybody noticing. The Fail Mary taught us that the NFL’s referees are, in fact, the best on the planet—but it also taught us that the league was willing to trade the integrity of its games for a few dollars. And as long as we remember that, we’ll always be a little bit skeptical, no matter who’s wearing the stripes.

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