Upon Further Review: Don't Blame The Replacement Officials

I just finished watching the Monday Night Football game between Denver and Atlanta; and I will be perfectly honest about the officiating in the game. It was embarrassing. I am not going to criticize the officials that officiated the game because it is not totally their fault. Anyone with common sense would agree the men working that game were in a losing situation. Place the blame exactly where it belongs: coaches, fans, the league, media, players, and the regular officials. Everyone is to blame for the bad perception of the “replacement refs.”

Very few of us thoroughly know the rules of any sport much less the NFL. To pretend that we, while sitting on our couch in jerseys drinking Miller Lite, are any better than the officials on the field is laughable.

I'll cite one specific example of where the officials were correct and were believed to be incorrect. I do not need to give any of when they were wrong because those examples are all over Deadspin and SportsCenter.

Early in the second quarter, Denver was correctly flagged for having too many men on the field. The rule is simple as is counting to eleven. Denver’s John Fox used his second challenge of the game to challenge that there were twelve men on the field. Then, the following tweet appeared in my timeline:

Since counting to eleven is easy, even for Division II & III officials, there were of course twelve men on the field. In a normal game situation a NFL coach would rely on his assistant coaches to suggest to him if he should or should not challenge a play. It appears in this instance they were wrong or Fox ignored their advice. Remember, officials—replacements or regulars—do not have the luxury of instant replay on nearly every play like fans do. This means they have to judge every play in real time and make a decision about whether a play is legal or illegal in less than ten seconds. How long do those of us watching at home have? About forty seconds-the average length it takes to look at any single play on replay four times. I saw a lot of interesting tweets during the game. Here are some of my personal favorites:

Anyone who believes that regular NFL officials are “laughing” at the display of these officials is wrong. I promise you they are just as bothered by what they see as you are. Forget to the fact that rules between the NFL and NCAA are totally different in many instances. New officials in the NFL come from Division I conferences and officiate games in front of crowds larger than any NFL stadium can hold. Be real, the men and women officiating as replacement officials come from Division II and III and are not qualified to referee these games. Don’t think for a second though they don’t care, because I promise you they do.

Or it affects your fantasy football team.

You cannot, and to think you could is an insult to anyone who has ever officiating any sport at any level. If you really believe you could do the job as easily, feel free to start officiating and let me know how your first game goes. So the referees aren’t perfect  and everyone thinks they can do their job, but we have people who do not even know basic rules calling out officials?

We know players - former or active - don't know the rules any better than fans. Ask Rich Gannon and Donovan McNabb about that. So much for that suggestion.

Fans often quote the game announcers in their argument that officials do not know the rules, but here's an example where some of the announcers do not know the rules.

Finally, some common sense. Remember, the real referees make mistakes often.

This is the tweet that puts the situation in perfect perspective:

The league has done nothing to protect these replacement officials. Yes, I know they are being paid well, but it is less than half of what regular officials are paid. The league should do more than release pathetic statements saying these officials have “performed admirably.” We know they have, but neither the players nor coaches respect the “replacement officials.” When there is no respect from either you have situations like Monday’s game where players literally pull officials from a pile because they fear no consequences. Players and coaches have been highly critical of officials since the pre-season and there have been virtually no fines. The league knows fans will continue to watch, but if they want to maintain a little bit of respect they should do all they can to defend their referees.

What fans do not understand is that these officials are not NCAA Division I officials; at best they are current Division II or III officials. Why? The regular NFL officials are supervisors of Division I & II conferences. Officials who work for NFL officials are normally the best in college football, but those officials were not selected because the league knew that once they worked NFL games they would lose their college jobs. While working the NFL might be a goal for some, many officials make far more money officiating a combination of high school and college games while maintaining peace of mind and family continuity. So no, you do not have the best alternate officials, and in any conceivable case, you would not get the best non-professional officials based on what I just wrote.

This is ESPN’s postgame discussion on Monday night’s football game. Steve Young hits the nail on the head. The league clearly does not care about who is officiating these games because as he and I both have said no matter how bad the “product” is we will all watch. If you think this is true, you are fooling yourself.

While we are placing blame, you know who else is to blame: the regular officials. Yes, they are locked out, but there are two sides to every labor situation. To place all of the blame on the league and its owners is foolish. The referees are not asking for anything but what they had in their previous contract, and while that is admirable, it is no longer feasible in today's economic environment. Private employer’s no longer off pension (defined benefit) plans because they are too expensive. The league wants to switch new officials to 401(k) (defined contribution) plans so they can estimate future costs. This is not an unreasonable request. Bear in mind the officials are part-time employees who make an average upwards of $100 for approximately 90 days of work per year. I do not know about you, but that is a good deal. The league also wants to take some of those officials, the referee and umpire, and make them full time employees. That is also a good deal until you understand that most of these officials have full time jobs and would have to leave their current jobs to work for the league full time.

In many cases, these officials are supervisors of one or multiple college football conference, own their own businesses, or work very lucrative jobs. The league wants the regulars to take a pay cut to become full time league employees instead of the league matching their current salary. Think about it this way: If I make $150,000 at my full time job and the league pays me $150,000 to work part time. The league now wants me to leave my $150,000 full time job and only accept their pay. So, you want me to take a 50% reduction in pay and have more responsibility. Would you do this? No one would.

There is a solution and the league and NFLRA will get there, but in the meantime, you are stuck with people who are officiating mostly for the love of the game. Yes, they are being paid well, but they are not as familiar with the rules as the regular officials are. To insist that you or I know the rules better than even the replacement officials is foolish. I have refereed high school and college basketball for the better part of 15 years. I refereed men’s college basketball then switched to women’s all while officiating high school basketball. Do you know how many sets of basketball rules I have in my head? Three. Could I referee in the NBA? Sure. Would I be good? No. Why? Their rules and interpretations are different than college and high school basketball. Would I be a better NBA official than someone who has never refereed basketball before? Yes. The differences between NFL and NCAA football rules are no different.

A few finals thoughts. 1. No one forces regular referees to officiate in the NFL; it is a choice they make. 2. The safety of the players is not at stake. The replacement officials have called more fouls than the regular referees have. 3. The league locked the regular officials out; what we do not know is if the officials were willing to work without a contract. 4. The replacement officials are trying hard to be as good at their job as they can be, and when they leave, the NFL there is a very real possibility they will never advance because they “crossed the picket line.”

Everyone is responsible, but be fair to the men and woman who put their officiating careers in jeopardy to bring you football on Sunday…and Monday…and Thursday.

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