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Bring back the regular refs, NFL fans plead after chaotic ending

By Michael Pearson, CNN
updated 7:54 PM EDT, Tue September 25, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: NFL Players Association says it is reviewing options to keep players safe
  • Green Bay Packers should have won game, but result will stand, NFL says
  • League declines to comment on status of negotiations with refs
  • Sticking points include salaries, retirement plans

(CNN) -- Sputtering frustration over replacement officials in the National Football League burst into full-on revolt after a controversial end-zone call that decided the fate -- wrongly, it turns out -- of Monday night's game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks.

"Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs," Packers guard T.J. Lang tweeted after the game ended, one in a series of profanity-laced tweets accusing the officials of taking the game from his team.

He wasn't alone. Discussion of the call virtually took over Twitter in the United States and sparked rising calls for the NFL to quickly settle its labor dispute with officials.

Even the Fan-in-Chief weighed in. "NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs' lockout is settled soon," President Barack Obama said on his campaign's Twitter account.

The NFL agreed Tuesday with angry fans, saying Green Bay should have won the game. But the league said a blown penalty call that should have invalidated Seattle's victory wasn't reviewable.

"The result of the game is final," the league announced.

The Seahawks won 14-12 after replacement officials, standing in for locked-out NFL regulars, gave possession of a disputed ball to Seattle receiver Golden Tate. In what's already become a well-traveled and widely mocked image, two officials in the end zone gave competing signals: one indicating a touchdown, the other an interception.

The decision withstood video review of footage that appeared to show that Tate had just one arm on the ball while Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings had both hands wrapped around it. The ball was pulled tight to Jennings' chest.

The video also appeared to show Tate shoving a Packers defender in the back before going for the ball, a move that would normally draw an offensive pass interference penalty.

In its statement Tuesday, the league said that penalty should have been called and would have ended the game with a Packers victory. But it said the lack of a penalty wasn't something officials could use instant replay to reverse.

As for the catch, the league said its officiating team reviewed the tape Tuesday and "supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling."

Packers coach Mike McCarthy declined to specifically address the call in his post-game news conference but said later that he had "never seen anything like that in all my years in football."

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of several players who commented on the situation, called the officiating "awful."

Coming away with a close win, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was less critical.

"From what I understand from the officials, it was a simultaneous catch, that's how they called it," Carroll told reporters. "Tag goes to the runner. Good call."

But he said it's still time for the dispute to end.

"It's a very, very complex process to handle these games and make the decisions, and there's nothing easy about it," he said. "And it takes years and years of experience to pull it off properly and in a timely fashion and to keep the flow of the game alive and all of that, and it's just time for it to be over."

"The league deserves it," Carroll said. "Everybody deserves it."

While criticizing officials is a major no-no in the league, NFL spokesman Greg Aiellio said league executives "are not focused on player tweets or comments."

Controversy over the replacement officials has been simmering since the preseason. A series of missed or muffed calls has riled coaches, players and fans, many of whom have called for a resolution of the labor dispute for weeks.

Sticking points include salary issues and changes to the retirement program for officials.

The league declined to say if they would go back to the negotiating table with officials in response to the criticism.

"We're not commenting on the status of negotiations," spokesman Aiello said.

On Thursday, the NFL Players Association sent a letter to league owners saying the decision to hire replacement officials "has led to a deteriorating of order, safety and integrity."

"This affirmative decision has not only resulted in poor calls, missed calls and bad game management, but the combination of those deficiencies will only continue to jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game that has taken decades to build," the union wrote.

Executive Director DeMaurice Smith wrote a memo to the players saying it is the league's duty to provide a safe workplace, which it was failing to do.

"We are actively reviewing any and all possible actions to protect you," he wrote.

It's also affecting gamblers.

Betters lost an estimated $150 million on the call, gambling expert R.J. Bell said on the gaming website Pregame.com.

Bell also writes that home crowds seem to be influencing officials and that scoring is up from Las Vegas expectations.

The outcry for a resolution appeared to be growing after the Monday night game.

On Tuesday, the website FootballZebras.com, which tracks officiating in the NFL, said the Monday night call was "beyond the tipping point, this is the drowning point."

Discussion of the game also accounted for at least four of the top 10 topics on Twitter in the United States, where everyday fans and celebrities appeared united in their frustration.

"If you're holding your baby & I walk up and hug it, according to the NFL replacement refs, you have to give me your baby," comedian Chris Rock tweeted.

In another tweet, former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe said, "the NFL is a Formula 1 race car. The replacement refs are the 3 year old behind the wheel."

Fans also took to the Web to post images skewering the replacement officials.

"Upon further review, the runner did not touch second base. Touchdown Celtics," said one image posted to Twitter.

Another image circulating on Twitter and Facebook shows officals conferring over the caption: "I have Russell Wilson and Golden Tate on my fantasy team. So clearly that was a touchdown."

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney got into the game Tuesday, saying he would introduce legislation against holding sporting events officiated by replacement officials.

"This past weekend in the NFL has not only made a mockery of a great sport, but shined a very bright light on how important fully trained and professional officiating is to player safety," said Sweeney, who is a big Packers fan, according to his spokesman. "We wouldn't allow a factory or construction site to operate without fully trained supervisors on hand to ensure the safety of employees. Why should we do anything differently when the job site is a playing field?"

Even the Lingerie Football League -- from which some of the replacement officials were reportedly drawn -- distanced itself from the growing controversy. The league announced it had parted ways with "a couple crews which are apparently now officiating in the NFL."

"We have a lot of respect for our officials but we felt the officiating was not in line with our expectations." league official Mitchell Mortaza said in the statement.

It's unlikely the call will spark an immediate turnaround in negotiations, said Matthew Mitten, director of the Sports Law Program at the Marquette University Law School -- yes, the one in Wisconsin.

But Mitten, an avowed Packers fan, said he hopes the controversy will help open NFL owners' eyes to the possibility of long-term damage to the league's hugely profitable brand.

"These are very smart business people, and I hope they will look at it and say, 'The longer this goes on, the greater chance there is for this to adversely affect the game and our brand,' " he said.

One sportswriter agreed.

"I don't think that the bottom line changes for (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell or the league's 32 owners," Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter told CNN. "This is still the most profitable sports league in North America. People are still watching."

The one thing that could change public sentiment to be more in support of the officials would be if a player were severely injured during a game with replacement referees, he said.

As for the players walking out in support of the officials, Reiter said that was not likely.

"I think it would be a step too far now to think that they would strike on behalf of the referees even with all the player safety issues that also a part of this," he said.

CNN's Jason Moon contributed to this report.

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