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Leigh Steinberg Headshot

Replace the Replacements

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Are you ready for some football? The first full weekend of NFL games kicked off on Sunday and Southern California continues without a franchise. When I was Chairman of "Save The Rams" back in 1994 I predicted publicly that if Orange County lost the Rams, Los Angeles would lose the Raiders and it would be years until a franchise returned, and the cost of building a stadium would be monumental. Naysayers retorted that the "NFL needed Los Angeles," and that is the attitude that the region has taken for almost 20 years. So while Jacksonville, #55 in television market ratings has a team, the 14 million Southern California fans do not. The NFL is at the height of its popularity. Even with the recession, stadiums remain filled, television ratings are astronomical, multiple revenue streams abound. But this won't be a normal opening day because something critical is missing -- real NFL officials. The League and its officials have been deadlocked throughout the summer on terms for a new contract. In a move reminiscent of President Reagan and the air traffic controllers, the NFL has decided to start the season without them. Who will officiate the games? Replacement officials.

The NFL games are the most difficult in all team sports to effectively referee. One game spent on the sidelines would reveal why. Otherwise it is difficult to comprehend the massive amount of action and force occurring on each play. Imagine 22 gargantuan bodies moving laterally and vertically at breathtaking speed. A complex set of rules need to be enforced under extreme time pressure and most calls are subject to instant replay scrutiny. There is a critical need to enforce unnecessary roughness and late hit penalties to protect the health and safety of players. The league has a pressing need to reassure its fans and players that "Bountygate" incentives to knock players out of a game do not recur. This is a sport which has been generally well-officiated by well-trained, experienced professionals. The search for replacement officials focused on small college Division Two and Three football. There are also replacements from the Arena League, high schools, and even the Lingerie Football League. This is the first experience in NFL football for all of them.

The pre-season was played with these replacements. In the very first pre-season game referee Craig Ochoa announced that New Orleans had won the toss. Actually it was Arizona. There were penalties called on the wrong players, spots of the ball were a couple of yards off, and inaccurate or misleading explanations were made publicly of the penalty calls. It is not that regular officials never make bad calls, they do. But the pressure and activity in the regular season is vastly different from the pre-season. In pre-season games teams pull the starters after a few series, and backup young players substitute for them. Almost half of the players competing in the first pre-season games have been waived and are no longer on rosters. Regular season games feature the fastest, most talented players and the speed of the game is exponentially higher. Remember the famous I Love Lucy episode when Lucy and Ethel are competently wrapping candy on an assembly line, as the line movers progressively faster they can't keep up and hilarious chaos ensues. The best players, coached by the best staffs, playing in state of the art stadiums are ready to provide thrilling action, but they have far from the best officials to keep the games credible. Every error a replacement player makes promises to slow down the action and undermine confidence in the results. Those fans who play in fantasy leagues or wager on the games will be especially upset.

The NFL and the NFL Players Association spent prodigious amounts of time in the 2011 off-season and crafted a 10-year collective bargaining agreement that ensures that the focus of fans stays on the field. The lack of labor controversy has allowed the NFL to concentrate on building revenue streams and the brand. The NFL Network, Direct TV, naming rights, corporate sponsorship and content displayed on mobile phones, tablets and computers are all a consequence of a long-term collective bargaining agreement that insures the games will be played without interruption. A League this brilliant and fan-sensitive with remarkable leadership at the League and ownership level knows better than to allow issues of officiating to be a focus and distraction.

The money differential between the two sides, salary and benefits, has never been substantial enough to have this type of impasse. The league position that the refs are modular, fungible, and replaceable is simply not true. The type of men who function admirably under crowd, player and coach interaction are a unique breed. They are respected pillars in their communities who have full-time jobs in the off-season. This is part of the problem. The system needs to be changed so that officials are employed throughout the year. And they need to be well-compensated to provide order and reliability out of chaos. Please don't confuse this group with the Bolshevik workers revolt. Until the officials become full-time employees, the NFL needs its best officials back. This deal needs to be made now.

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