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Referees learning on the job won’t work in NFL

By Bryan Burwell, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

ST. LOUIS — At some point this weekend, everyone who truly loves professional football being played the way it’s truly s’pozed to be, will surely unite in one enormous, uncomfortable and completely unnecessary group groan across the land. It won’t be as a result of some promising star-on-the-rise laying down some bad karma on game tape, or even the sight of a creaking NFL graybeard missing enough assignments to edge one step closer toward the career sunset.

Those are necessary evils of every NFL preseason, as teams engage in the natural wheat-from-chaff selection process to shape their regular-season rosters.

The nervous horror I imagine is an evil of the totally unnecessary kind.

Replacement referees.

Through some fault of their own (but mostly the fault of others), these in-over-their-heads stand-in zebras have been miscast as the heavies in the ongoing labor dispute between NFL owners and their locked-out regular game officials.

The replacement refs are in the unenviable position of being stuck in the middle of a contentious labor dispute between ownership and the referees union that appears to have no end in sight. So it now looks very likely that pro football will begin the season with inexperienced replacement referees trying to step in and manage the game.

If you don’t understand why that’s a bad thing, then please watch closely the preseason games being played this weekend, including the one Saturday night at the Edward Jones Dome between the Rams and Kansas City Chiefs.

In a sport where the league ownership constantly beats the PR drum about how much it cares about player safety, the NFL is now saying that it is perfectly comfortable with putting the game-day safety of its millionaire players and its multi-billion dollar business in the hands of men and women officials who have not received the proper training to regulate the game at its highest athletic level.

“I feel bad for these replacement people because they’re so overmatched,” former head of NFL officials Mike Pereira said during a radio interview this week on WSCR-AM in Chicago.

After last week’s first set of preseason games, you can begin to understand why this could prove to be a health issue for the players. According to several NFL wise guys I’ve talked to around the league, the biggest fear they have is that when the game rolls by too fast for the replacement refs, they’re simply swallowing their whistles. Based on their level of experience, where many of them have never even officiated in a BCS conference game, the NFL game has to be going by in warp speed.

“(It’s) not only just the speed of the game, but the interpretation of the rules,” Pereira said. “It takes so long to learn the rules of the NFL. Timing rules, enforcement rules, it’s a totally different game in which you don’t even let an official work the Super Bowl unless he’s been in the league for five years. That’s really how long it takes to get to your best in the NFL. ……There’s no question to me that the integrity of the game will be compromised.”

The general public has little interest or stomach for delving into the minutiae of a labor dispute between the NFL and its referees. But the easiest takeaway from this dispute is that as bad as the replacement referees might be, I don’t blame them as much as I blame the people who have created this situation in the first place.

The replacement refs are being protected on one side by the league which has issued a league-wide gag order on coaches and other front-office types from ripping on them, and savaged on the other side by players, locked-out officials and anyone with good enough eyesight to see what a bad job they’ve done after only one week on the job.

Earlier this week when New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked his opinion of the replacement refs, he chuckled before shrewdly deferring to Pereira. “I think Mike Pereira has made his comments on the officials,” he said. “I don’t know who knows more about NFL officiating than Mike Pereira, so we’ll leave it to him. I’m just trying to coach our team and get our team better. I’m not worried about what everybody else is doing; It’s not my job.”

By deftly tap dancing around a league office memo that ordered all management types to treat the replacement refs with kid gloves, Belichick was still able to deliver his message with the authority of a punch to the gut.

One of the most influential voices in the NFL, the coach with the most Super Bowl pelts on the wall, expressed his displeasure of the referees situation with his astute no-look pass to Pereira.

This may not be the sort of normal sports labor crisis that gets the sporting public tied up in a polarizing emotional knot.

But maybe it should.

Let some defensive lineman or linebacker come flying around the edge on an unabated pass rush and the replacement ref can’t comprehend how fast that big man is going, or is unable to digest the idea that he has just gone offside and that the NFL rule requires a whistle to immediately stop the action before a $50 million quarterback gets decapitated.

Pereira talked about how the NFL is padding some of these officials’ resumes, including one replacement ref who according to Pereira was released as an official in the lingerie league midway through the season.

“I don’t think the league is going to put that out,” said Pereira. “The league wants as little out as possible. They don’t want people talking about it. They don’t want me talking about it. I don’t work for the NFL. I don’t manage the officials either. I don’t have a horse in this race. All I want is to get this thing settled so that I can sit back and watch a game either from my studio in L.A. or on TV. I just want to be able to watch the game and know that a game that is so difficult to officiate is at least going to have the most-experienced and best officials available.”

This is very risky business the NFL is engaged in and they have to know it. I wonder how many of these owners will continue to honor that league-wide gag order if one of these replacement guys misses a call and it’s their face-of-the-franchise employee laying facedown on the turf with one of his $50 million body parts twisted or torn?

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