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Labor dispute risks integrity of game
I have been through this before and it is not pretty. In fact, it is downright ugly and risky. The NFL’s contract with its game officials expired over the summer. The NFL locked out its officials and hired replacements to officiate games in the 2012 season.
It happened in 2001 when former director of officiating operations Larry Upson and I were in charge at the NFL . . . and it is happening again, now.
Does any of this make sense?
Drew Brees just signed a new contract that will pay him $40 million in 2012. Players' salaries are paid per game during the regular season. That is 16 paychecks. For Brees, that comes out to him earning $2.5 million per game.
Gene Steratore, an official we hired in 2003 who is generally regarded as one of the better referees in the NFL, is the official in charge of protecting Brees and his $2.5 million per game.
Steratore made $5,606 per game during the 2011 season and would like a raise to about $6,000 per game this season. The NFL is offering him $5,746.
To sum this up, the NFL is offering its crew of well-trained officials a compensation increase of 2.5 percent. The officials are asking for 8 percent.
OK, using Brees as an example of the value we should place on protecting players on the field may not be fair since his new contract is so front-loaded. Maybe Sam Bradford is a better example. The Rams quarterback is scheduled to earn $12 million this season. That is $750,000 per game.
Again, Steratore, one of the NFL’s top referees, wants to make about $6,000 each game.
Steratore also wants to keep his defined retirement benefit we promised when we hired him in ‘03. He and other officials are willing to accommodate some change to their pension, which the NFL wants to convert to a 401K contribution fund for officials hired from this point forward.
A lot of you can appreciate how contentious any negotiations about retirement funds can be.
So, the two sides cannot agree. And that has brought about the lockout and the controversial prospect of replacement officials.
What is at risk? Clearly, the two areas that will be most compromised are player safety and the integrity of the game.
Let's establish some facts:
• NFL football is extremely tough to officiate. The speed of the game is incredible.
• NFL officials are not perfect. They make their fair share of mistakes.
• NFL officials have a combined total of 1,456 years of NFL experience.
• The replacement officials the NFL is using have a combined zero years of NFL experience.
Quick initial conclusion:
The replacement officials are making a lot more mistakes than the regular officials. Many more mistakes will be made, not only in the area of judgment but also in game management, including timing and rules interpretation.
So, for those of you that say the integrity of the game was already at risk with the regular officials, it is a lot more at risk with this group of replacements. If I am a quarterback in the NFL, I would be a little nervous about putting my protection in the hands of a referee with no NFL experience as opposed to a regular NFL referee who averages 14.9 years of experience.
Let's take it a step further. Who are the replacement officials? Are they from a group that includes the next wave of highly trained people that will be brought into the NFL ranks? Not even close!
There are officials with high school experience only. There are officials who were dropped from their college conferences. Three officials from the Pac-12 Conference that were not rehired this season for performance reasons are working NFL games.
Think about it: They weren't good enough for the Pac-12, but they are good enough to be trusted to work in the NFL.
There are semi-pro officials who are scheduled to work NFL games, too. There are even retired college officials — most of whom have been out of the game for many years — among the NFL’s group of replacements.
There will not be a single official that I know of working 2012 NFL games that was working in any of the major college conferences.
Who is training the replacements? Not the current NFL trainers. This esteemed group that includes former referees Jerry Markbreit and Red Cashion, former umpires Jim Quirk and Ron Botchan, former line of scrimmage officials Sid Semon and Ben Montgomery, and former deep officials Dean Look, Tom Fincken and Bill Schmitz has decided — for the right reason — that it will not work with the replacements.
These highly regarded veterans understand the officiating labor impasse will eventually be settled, and they do not want to jeopardize the good relationship with the officials they work with now.
This means there are now nine fewer people training the inexperienced replacement group the NFL has assembled. The men mentioned above are nine trainers representing 265 years of experience and 22 worked Super Bowls.
It’s important to note these trainers weren't fired by the NFL. They were told by the league that they are “seasonal” employees, and I guess it is not their season. They also had to turn in their NFL-issued computers, which contained their training materials.
This thing should have been settled before a single down of football was played.
The simple facts are that player safety and the integrity of the game are at risk. Both sides need to sit down and negotiate. Both proposals have room for negotiation.
If the NFL wants to play hardball, then the league needs to answer the play safety and integrity issue. If the officials want to play hardball, they, too, will be complicit in these issues, and will be giving up one of the things in life they love doing most.
Follow me on Twitter, @mikepereira, and I will try to keep you up to date. It's time to crank up my twitter account.