League facing fury over referees' "Hail Mary" call
(Reuters) - Fans, players and politicians vented their anger on Tuesday over a controversial refereeing decision that cost the Green Bay Packers a victory, but the National Football League (NFL) said the result of the game would stand.
The NFL is using replacement referees from the lower ranks of college and semi-professional football during a lockout of regular game officials caused by a dispute over a new contract.
While the replacements have been criticized throughout the first three weeks of the season for perceived indecisive and confusing calls, unprecedented levels of frustration spilled over after Monday's primetime game.
Even President Barack Obama took to Twitter to give his thoughts on the situation, writing: "NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs' lockout is settled soon."
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with the president aboard Air Force One that he had talked to Obama about the game.
"He said that what happened in that game is a perfect example of why both sides need to come together, resolve their differences so that the regular refs can get back on the field and we can start focusing on a game that so many of us love rather than debating whether or not a game is won or lost because of a bad call," said Carney.
Trailing 12-7 with seconds left on the game clock, the Seattle Seahawks were facing a fourth down on the Packers' 24-yard line and rookie quarterback Russell Wilson heaved a 'Hail Mary' pass into the end zone.
Seahawks receiver Golden Tate pushed off on Packers cornerback Sam Shields with what looked a clear case of offensive pass interference before he rose to attempt to challenge Green Bay's M.D. Jennings.
Jennings appeared to have caught the ball before Tate's hands made contact with it but as they fell to the ground the two referees close by made differing calls - one ruled a touchdown and the other an interception.
The ruling on the field was touchdown by simultaneous catch and was upheld after being sent up for video review - with some confusion about whether the NFL's byzantine rules allow for a review of a simultaneous catch.
Speaking on ESPN radio in Wisconsin on Tuesday, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said: "The game is being tarnished by an NFL that obviously cares more about saving some money than having the integrity of the game diminished.
"We are dealing with an NFL that locked out the players (last year). This is an NFL who gambled on some low-level referees including the guy who makes the most important call last night, who has never had any professional experience."
The NFL issued a statement which both criticized one on-field decision while backing the decision not to overturn the touchdown on video evidence.
"While the ball is in the air, Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. This should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. It was not called and is not reviewable in instant replay," the league said before backing the officials on the major talking point.
"Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood.
"The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review. The result of the game is final.
The league's response will do little to temper the mood of Packers fans.
On Tuesday some fans gathered outside Green Bay's Lambeau Field to protest while passing drivers hooted in support of placards declaring "We Were Robbed" and "Speechless in Seattle."
"They got screwed," said Jennifer Hanley, 31, as she tended bar at Romine's High Pockets, a sports bar and pool hall in Greenfield, Wisconsin.
"The refs suck, they are dragging down the NFL," she said adding she will not watch the Packers until the NFL resolves its dispute with the referees.
The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) said the inexperienced replacements were putting players at risk.
"The decision by the NFL owners to lock out the referees jeopardizes your health and safety," NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith wrote in a letter to players.
"This decision to remove more than 1,500 years of collective experience has simply made the workplace less safe. It is the NFL's duty to provide a workplace that is as safe as possible."
Politicians were also quick to join the outrage.
New Jersey state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said in a statement that he plans to introduce legislation prohibiting the playing of professional sporting events with 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.
"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?"
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's office telephone number was circulated on Twitter by a Wisconsin State Senator Jon Erpenbach who urged fans to leave a message.
Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker called via Twitter for the locked-out referees to be brought back.
However, it is by no means only Packers fans who have raised criticism of the NFL for allowing replacement officials to take charge of games.
From LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki of the National Basketball Association to actor Samuel L. Jackson, social media sites were full of opinion, most of it highly critical of the referees and the NFL for allowing them to be in charge.
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Greenfield, Wisconsin, and Mark Felsenthal on board Air Force One; Editing by Mark Meadows and Frank Pingue)