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NFL turns to amateurs as referee lockout continues

Liam Quinn


Liam Quinn

Written on Friday, 24 August 2012 07:37

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Lockouts are the new black in professional sports.

The NFL and NBA seasons of 2011/12 both felt the impact of off-field labor issues, the NHL – having finally recovered from the strike that cost the league its 2004/05 campaign – is reportedly careening towards another catastrophe, and, as the 2012 NFL season draws ever nearer, the league is enduring its second consecutive dispute. However, this time it isn't the multi-millionaire stars holding out cupped hands and asking for more, but rather the guys in the black and white stripes.

Not surprisingly, the sticking point in the negotiations is financial. The referees, who last renegotiated their salary in 2006, feel that the current increase offered by the NFL is well below the standard set six years ago. One of the narratives coming from the officials is that they feel the league is trying to limit expenses by underpaying the men charged with controlling the on-field action.

Another troublesome point in the negotiations – from a non-economic standpoint – is that the league wants to make a portion of their officials full-time NFL employees. Yet, according to ESPN NFL guru Chris Mortensen, the referees – currently part-time employees – are fighting against the move, sighting that 90 percent of current officials have pre-existing full-time jobs in addition to their on-field duties.

As full-time employees it's easy to see how NFL referees could feel somewhat disenfranchised with their current pay structure.

Of the four major leagues in the United States, NFL referees get paid the least despite the NFL's place atop the totem pole in terms of financial performance. The average starting salary for an NFL referee is $78,000 per annum, which is still a tidy sum, but pales in comparison to the average starting salary of $120,000 on offer in Major League Baseball.

Yet, rather than just being some lingering admin issue, the effects of the discussions are already being felt on the field.

While the two sides continue their battle around the negotiating table, the NFL has turned to replacements – largely to unflattering reviews. The league's stopgap solution got off to an ominous start, when during the curtain raising pre-season Hall of Fame game Referee Craig Ochoa incorrectly announced to the crowd the team that won the toss.

In the fortnight of exhibition (sorry, preseason) football that has followed since, a litany of mistakes have made their way into the action. Touchdowns have been missed, penalty flags not thrown, spots missed by substantial margins, and even teams wrongly identified – as was the case when the Atlanta Falcons were continually referred to as "Arizona."

But, for the most part, it's easy to laugh away the replacement errors. After all, it's only preseason, right? However, recent reports suggest that when the season begins in earnest, the real referees will still be watching on from the sidelines. A development that didn't sit well with New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees, who became the most prominent player to speak out against the NFL's plan.

"I would be concerned if it went into the regular season," Brees said at the Saints' training camp last week. "It's just the level of experience that obviously the officials have."

"It's just like on a team if you said, 'hey, we're going to put five rookies in front of you and a bunch of first-year players catching the ball and running the ball.' You just don't have the same level of trust and confidence."

For the NFL, an industry worth over $9 billion per year and seen in many ways to be the standard bearer for pro sports, it's baffling to think that they will rely on a motley crew of back ups – comprised of lower division, retired College umpires and Arena Football League officials.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently shared his thoughts with how negotiations are progressing.

"We had discussions recently," Goodell said. "Hopefully, we'll have more in the near future. But we're preparing for the season and we will have officials on the field. We hope our officials from last season will be on the field this season."

The idea of the Week One opener or even the Super Bowl becoming the responsibility of amateur umpires is beyond comprehension. The NFL needs to get the real deal back out on the field, throwing flags, looking under hoods and doing what they do best.

If not, the integrity of the 2012-13 competition will be seriously compromised.

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