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NFL needs to pay its referees more money

With the influx of legalized gambling across the country, all sports need to worry about a major scandal similar to the one the NBA faced with referee Tim Donaghy in 2007.

It’s not supposed to work this way.

Referees shouldn’t be leaving football to enter broadcasting prematurely. They are, in whole or in part because the NFL doesn’t pay referees as much as the NFL should.

It’s been a common complaint. People connected to the league believe the league doesn’t value these jobs the way that the NFL should, resulting in multiple referees choosing in recent years to leave the game prematurely. As noted by Peter King on Monday after the NFL announced that John Parry was retiring for a gig with ESPN, seven of 17 referees have retired in the last 13 months. Although some surely would have retired anyway, some surely would have stayed if the money was better, because money is always a factor when making decisions like this.

The money surely needs to be better. Would a player still in his prime ever stop playing because he could make more money in the broadcast booth? No player would, and no referee should, either.

After Gene Steratore, Jeff Triplette, and Terry McAulay joined CBS, ESPN, and NBC, respectively, in 2018, many assumed that no other TV jobs would be available any time soon. But with the supply of potentially TV-ready referees far outweighing the demand, ESPN was able to dump Triplette for Parry.

As legalized gambling spreads, the stakes will only get higher for the NFL. Beyond having good procedures in place to rectify errors, errors need to be minimized. Better referees are much more likely to make fewer mistakes. Thus, better referees need to be making enough money so that they’ll choose to stay put.

Interestingly, the networks aren’t shying away from hiring active referees, even though doing so could cause the NFL to view those networks as something other than good partners. Ultimately, the market needs to operate freely; if the networks can make attractive offers to referees, the NFL should be able to make much better offers, given that referees are far more critical to football games than rules consultants are to the broadcasting of them.