If the National Football League is serious about player safety and the integrity of the game, it will end this foolish lockout of the league’s referees.
The NFL’s referees have been on the outs since June 3. And if the league and the refs’ union can’t come to terms this week, it’s likely the NFL season will start on September 5 with replacement referees – the same motley crew that’s been making a mockery of the sport so far this pre-season.
It’s true – you really don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Pro football’s referees may not be perfect, but they’re head-and-shoulders ahead of the group that have been officiating this year’s exhibition games.
But what should we expect from scab refs? Because Division I college officials have agreed not to moonlight for the NFL, most of these guys have never officiated beyond the high school level. Craig Ochoa, the head referee in Sunday night’s Steelers-Colts game, was fired by the Lingerie League in the middle of last season. He couldn’t even get the coin toss right in the New Orleans-Arizona game, and in the Atlanta-Baltimore tilt kept referring to “Arizona” in his penalty announcements.
So far this pre-season, we’ve seen things like a holding call against a player running back a punt, a quarterback pointing out the correct hash mark to spot the ball, a clock run out after a defensive penalty and a touchback on a punt downed at the five-yard line. Throw in all the mystery interference calls, bad spots and missed holding calls and the officiating during the exhibition season has been flat-out abysmal.
And worst of all, pre-season games are played at half-speed. How bad are things going to get when players are going flat-out and every play actually matters?
The NFLRA is looking for a healthy increase in salaries, to hire more crews to reduce travel, the ability to hold other jobs in the off-season and some security to their pension plan, which they accuse the NFL of wanting to freeze and eventually eliminate.
In all, it’s estimated that caving in to all of the union’s demands would cost each NFL team about $100,000.
That’s a pittance for the $9 billion industry known as the NFL, where even the smallest-market teams have an estimated value of $1 billion. You can’t even get a decent third-string offensive lineman for $100,000 these days. Unlike many labour disputes in which there may be solid arguments on each side, the league is clearly nickel-and-diming here.
But what’s most frustrating about all this is the league’s hypocritical stance on player safety. For years NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his cronies have been claiming that nothing, not even the sport itself, is more important than the health of the NFL players. The league has made myriad rule changes to decrease head injuries and protect its most valuable assets – star players at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. The NFL is facing a potential multi-million dollar lawsuit from former players alleging that, given all the recent changes to the game, the league willingly didn’t do enough in the early days to protect its players.
In light of that, one would think having real officials would be a critical component to ensuring that rules are followed and players are protected on the field. Instead, the league appears willing to be penny-wise and pound-foolish with the health of its players.
If the league and the NFLRA come to an agreement this week, it will likely take two more weeks until the officials are game ready. If Goodell and the NFL want to maintain any level of credibility with the players and the fans, they should waste no time in ending the insanity and get a deal done.