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NFL referee debacle costs everyone, except the NFL

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Monday Night Football's controversial game-ending play between the Packers and Seahawks is only the latest flap involving the NFL's use of replacement referees. And it's starting to get costly for just about everyone, except the league itself.

Start with the regular referees, who haven't taken the field because of a contract dispute with the NFL. As the lockout drags into the fourth week of the regular season, the NFL referees have reportedly lost about $50,000 apiece so far.

Some coaches are also taking salary hits as frustration mounts over the ineptitude of the league’s replacement referees. 

Denver Broncos coaches Jon Fox and Jack del Rio were dunned $30,000 and $25,000, respectively, for “verbally abusing” the refs during their team’s Monday night loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2. Three more coaches are “under investigation” by the league for their behavior in Week 3.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick joined the fray Sunday night. Trying to get an official’s attention after a questionable game-ending field goal in the Patriot’s loss to the Ravens, an exasperated Belichick pawed at the referee’s collar as he ran past. Touching a ref is a huge no-no; If Belichick were a player, he’d be suspended. As is, he’s probably looking at a steeper fine than Fox or Del Rio (many analysts guess he’ll pay $50,000).

John Harbaugh, the Ravens head coach, is also taking heat – and a likely pocketbook hit – for arguing with officials during that game. In a separate Sunday game, Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag for berating a ref after a bad “false start” call on his offense, followed by some serious clock mismanagement. Shanahan released a statement saying he “acted the wrong way,” and probably faces a stiff fine from the league.

All of this was just prelude to last night's fireworks, when the refs handed the Seattle Seahawks a contentious Monday night win over the Green Bay Packers.

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On the last drive of the game, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson fired a hail Mary pass into a crowded end zone, intended for receiver Golden Tate. Packers safety M.D. Jennings looked to have intercepted the pass, but then Tate, who had shoved one Packers defender to the ground with both hands (offensive pass interference, or it should have been), then latched onto the ball in Jennings’ hands. Both men came down with it, and the officials ruled it a game-winning touchdown for Seattle.

Players, coaches, and analysts – involved in the game and not – were livid. “I’m not talking about the officials,” Packers head coach Mick McCarthy began his post-game press conference, before adding, "Very hard to swallow. I have never seen anything like that in my time in football."

Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden called the game “tragic” and “comical.” At the risk of league fines, several Packers players vented their frustrations on Twitter. “13th man beat us tonight,” Tom Crabtree tweeted. After a series of profanity-laden tweets, Packers guard TJ Lang dared the NFL: “Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs.”

“I love this league and love the game of football, but tonight’s debacle hurts me greatly,” tweeted Saints quarterback Drew Brees. “This is NOT the league we’re supposed to represent.”

Even politicians are getting involved: Following the Packers loss, Wisconsin state Sen. Jon Erpenbach tweeted NFL Comissioner Roger Goodell’s phone number, and the message, “If tonight’s game doesn’t make the NFL settle with the real refs this season will be a joke.”

Fans are paying, too, with both their time and money. Games that should take three hours to complete are taking closer to four, as replacement refs take longer to discuss calls, correct bad ball placements, and reverse rulings. This morning, ESPN Sports business writer Darren Rovell reported that the game ending call in Monday night’s Seattle win shifted between $150 million and $250 million in money that NFL gamblers had riding on the game.

The only party not paying a price, it seems, is the only party that can end it: the NFL itself.  In its first two weeks, Monday Night Football ruled the cable ratings, topping 10 million viewers each time. Sunday night’s Patriots-Ravens game on NBC had more viewers than ABC’s Primetime Emmy Awards. And the referee debacle has everyone talking about the NFL, even overseas media outlets. Though Goodell and the NFL are losing the public relations battle, they aren’t losing much else.

And as long as the players keep playing and the fans keep watching, it may stay that way.

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