In addition to the expected components of pay, pension and protection that have comprised the typical sticking points in their negotiations with the league for a new collective bargaining agreement, NFL game officials Wednesday raised a somewhat unexpected issue that could be one key ramification of a lockout.
"If (some) calls aren't made ... you're going to have some (unsafe) things going on, and it could get a little nasty in there," said referee Scott Green, president of the NFL Referees Association, during a midday conference call with national media.
The league on June 3 locked out the NFLRA, whose CBA with the NFL expired on May 31, and has proceeded with plans to hire replacement officials for the season. It is believed that training sessions for proposed replacements are being conducted this week. But the NFLRA representatives who participated in the Wednesday call acknowledged reservations about the ability of the fill-ins to arbitrate the games.
Green contended the replacements are "not of NFL quality," and said that officiating an NFL game is "more than collecting a group of guys and sending them to two days of a training camp." High-profile referee Ed Hochuli, a past NFLRA president, likened the potential of using replacement referees to sending a team of doctors who had never previously performed surgery into an operating room. "You wouldn't expect that in any kind of profession," Hochuli said.
The unusual and relatively fresh element discussed, though, was player safety. It is a significant issue potentially, but one that had not previously generated much attention. Some might contend that the issue was broached by officials on Wednesday as simply another point of posturing and a bit self-serving, but the concern of the NFLRA representatives seemed real, and the point appears to be a legitimate one, albeit not often considered by the public.
Toward that end, the regular referees recently convened a "safety symposium" with a group of players.
The NFL last used replacement officials in 2001 for one preseason week and one weekend of regular-season games. Some of those games included only 1-5 penalties, the referees' representatives said Wednesday, and the clear inference, without citing any injury figures, was that the games were less safe as a result.
"You would think you'd have some incidents . . . that result from things that are not called," said NFLRA executive director Tim Millis.
Despite remarks by Chicago middle linebacker Brian Urlacher last month, that there might be little difference in the way game are called, even if the NFL resorts to using replacement referees, Green said that he felt players, coaches and fans might find it "unsettling" to have fill-ins.
"Most people," Hochuli said, "have no idea how complicated" the NFL rules and application of those rules tend to be.
Several of the men on the conference call pointed out that, in the past 20 years, there has been only one example of an NFL crew including two rookies. If the league goes to replacement officials for 2012, it will be the equivalent, the referees noted, of having entire crews comprised of rookies.
The Sports Xchange last month reported that the 121 officials under contract to the NFL for the 2011 season averaged 11.4 years of league tenure. The 17 referees averaged 14.9 seasons. Only four game officials from the 2011 crews had fewer than four seasons of experience.
Most of the 100 or so possible replacement officials have been drawn from lower college levels, semi-pro leagues, and possibly a few from other professional leagues. The NFLRA representatives contended that the pool of possible replacements does not even include referees who typically would have been on the NFL's "short list" for elevation to the league.
Said Hochuli: "They're looking at people that they would not (normally) consider bringing into the league."
Chief counsel and lead negotiator Mike Arnold said there has not been a bargaining session with the NFL since a marathon May 30 mediation session, and that none are currently planned. But he and others on the call pointed out that the regular game officials are continuing to prepare for the season with regional training sessions, clinics, videotapes and tests. The preparation, they said, is even more ambitious than they would generally have with league purview.
"Candidly, we'll be ready to take the field the next day (after an agreement)," Hochuli said. But Hochuli also cautioned that, without a preseason to prepare for the campaign, the officials could encounter the same kind of "rust" that players do. "If we miss the preason, we'll make some mistakes (at the outset) of the season," Hochuli said.
Arnold suggested that the lockout was "predetermined," and a part of the NFL's "negotiating strategy." Millis echoed the sentiment, referencing last year's lockout of the players and noting that: "A lockout seems to be their negotiating strategy with everybody.
By Len Pasquarelli, The Sports Xchange
Publish Date: July 18, 2012 03:02:45 PM
NFL game officials: Safety a concern using replacement refs
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