GREEN BAY, Wis. — Entire stadiums have booed them. The Patriots’ Bill Belichick grabbed one by the arm and the Redskins’ Kyle Shanahan was so hopping mad he followed one into the tunnel after the game.
But it took the team that Vince Lombardi built, playing in a “Monday Night Football” headliner, to put the NFL’s latest labor headache — locked-out officials and their struggling, under-fire replacements — front and center for the nation. Even President Barack Obama, a Bears fan slogging through a re-election campaign, weighed in Tuesday, saying, “We’ve got to get our refs back.”
Is this where the NFL’s lockout of its regular refs comes to an end? On a call that many believe cost the Packers and their Cheesehead-wearing followers a win at Seattle?
The NFL stood fast, giving no sign Tuesday that it was close to reaching a new labor pact with the referees’ union. But the outrage grew beyond NFL players (risking fines for speaking out) like Falcons tight end Anthony Gonzalez, who tweeted: “How do you miss that? Pop Warner refs would have gotten that right.”
LeBron James tweeted he was “sick” about it and Dirk Nowitzki said he was “not gonna watch another nfl game until real refs” return, while fans pretty much everywhere except Seattle concluded that Green Bay was robbed. Some threatened to boycott until order is restored and others tried to pull the plug on their NFL satellite television packages, only to be told that they can’t cancel in the middle of the season.
“I don’t really want to give them money if they’re going to be greedy about things,” said Packers fan Chris Kroening, who lives in Milwaukee. “It’s just not that fun to watch any more. I can find better things to do on a Sunday afternoon than watch refs make bad calls.”
For all their outrage, Kroening and Michael Mantuano, a Packers fan in Pine Bluff, Ark., both acknowledged that they would probably be watching on Sunday when Green Bay hosts the Saints.
“Yeah, I’m going to watch the game because I still love the Packers,” Mantuano said. “But it’s a bitter pill to swallow on Tuesday morning when it just clearly wasn’t the right call.”
It all started when Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s last-gasp pass into the end zone appeared to be hauled down by Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings while Seahawks receiver Golden Tate also got his hands on the ball.
Two replacement officials made contrasting signals — one indicated a touchdown, the other an interception — and they eventually ruled on the field that Tate had simultaneous possession with Jennings, which counts as a reception by the offensive player.
Touchdown, Seattle. Game over, Packers.
The NFL acknowledged Tuesday that Tate should have been flagged for offensive pass interference earlier on the play, which would have ended the game with a Packers victory. But league officials said the referee was correct that no indisputable visual evidence existed on a replay review to overturn the touchdown call.
The result of the game, 14-12 Seattle, was final. That’s certainly not how the Packers saw it, insisting that Jennings clearly had intercepted the pass.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers called it “awful” in his postgame interview and he didn’t let up Tuesday. He called the league’s conclusion “garbage” and said the officials were responsible for a “phantom” pass interference call earlier against the Packers before having “zero communication” after the final play.
“I’ve got to do something that the NFL is not going to do: I have to apologize to the fans,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on ESPN 540-AM in Milwaukee. “Our sport is generated — the multibillion-dollar machine — is generated by people who pay good money to watch us play. And the product that’s on the field is not being complemented by an appropriate set of officials.
“The games are getting out of control, and like I said in the first week, I said this, I’m OK with the replacement refs as long as they don’t have a direct impact on the game,” Rodgers said. “Obviously, last night, there was a direct impact on the game.”
He added: “The game is being tarnished by an NFL who obviously cares more about saving some money than having the integrity of the game diminished.”
Packers guard T.J. Lang posted a message on his Twitter account criticizing the call, then challenged the NFL to “Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs.” On Tuesday, Lang apologized for using profanity in his posts — but said that was the only thing he regretted.
Fellow Packers offensive lineman Josh Sitton used his Twitter account to call on the NFL to come to Green Bay and apologize to the Packers.
“The NFL needs to get the refs back (before) we strike and they make no money!” Sitton posted after the game.
Rodgers, a players’ union representative during the lockout, expressed skepticism about that happening and said, “Let’s remember who we’re dealing with.”
“We’re dealing with an NFL who locked out the players and said we’re going to stand firm on our position,” he said on the radio show. “... This is an NFL who gambled on some low-level referees, including the guy who makes the most important call last night, who’s never had any professional experience.”
After the so-called “Inaccurate Reception,” a small Facebook group advocated an “Occupy Lambeau” protest movement before Sunday’s game against New Orleans. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker used his Twitter account to call for the return of the regular officials — a public show of support for locked-out unionized workers, an odd juxtaposition given his national reputation for going after public employee unions last year.
For all the bluster, few expect many empty seats or unwatched television sets on NFL Sundays.
“I mean, it’s not the Packers’ fault,” Kroening said. “I pretty much live and die by watching them.”
Mantuano, the other fan, said he was concerned that a team will miss the playoffs or a star player will get hurt because of a replacement official’s mistake. He wondered aloud about the health of Rodgers, Tom Brady and Tony Romo.
Oddsmakers said millions of dollars changed hands on that now-famous play.
“Due to one call by the replacement refs, the bettors lost $150 million, and the bookie won $150 million for a total swing of $300 million on one debatably bad call,” said RJ Bell of Las Vegas-based Pregame.com.
AP Sports Writer Rachel Cohen in New York and Associated Press writers Oskar Garcia in Honolulu and Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this story.
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