The labor dispute between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association this summer was not a large story. It gathered far less media attention than the NFL Players Association lockout a year ago. The ramifications of this lockout, however, have been much greater than that of the players’ lockout a season ago.
The replacement referees are in over their heads. Most of these referees have never worked on a national stage. In many cases, they have been affected by being on the same field as players and coaches of the highest caliber.
According to Luke Hughes of NESN, Ravens safety Bernard Pollard is quoted as saying, "These guys are starstruck. Even in the preseason one of the refs saw Joe Flacco and he was amazed. I was thinking 'Wow, what if this was [Tom] Brady?”
Pollard went on to say, "I understand these guys are starstruck. I understand they respect us as players and they respect certain men that they've seen or watched. But when it's all said and done, you have to step on that field and you cannot be bullied.”
Referees have certainly been bullied this season. In Week 2, Broncos head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio verbally abused the replacement referees whose inability to control the game led to a fiasco of a first quarter on a nationally televised game. ESPN reports that, “The NFL fined…John Fox $30,000 and…Jack Del Rio $25,000 for their behavior during last Monday night's loss to Atlanta in which they publicly criticized officials.”
The NFL executive vice president, Ray Anderson, says “there is a long-standing NFL rule prohibiting verbal or physical abuse of game officials."
There are many more instances of players and coaches ignoring this rule. One of the most visible instances occurred Sunday night when Patriots head coach Bill Belichick physically grabbed a referee after a controversial field goal call.
Another criticism of the replacement referees is their potential to be biased on the field.
According to ESPN, replacement referee Brian Stropolo is an open fan of the New Orleans Saints. When he was assigned to officiate a game against the Carolina Panthers, he was replaced after ESPN contacted the NFL, who “was unaware of Stropolo's open allegiance as a Saints fan”.
How can referees be expected to be objective when they are officiating games where their idol is starting at quarterback? In a world where you control the success of your favorite NFL football team, it is not impossible to imagine that the thought of helping your team to victory would not cross your mind.
Finally, the lack of professional referees in the NFL calls each and every controversial call into question.
Tonight, the bizarre finish in the Seattle Seahawks win over the Green Bay Packers was only made more confusing by the fact that the replacement referees clearly did not know what the correct ruling was. Again, on a national stage, the replacement refs showed why they were replacements in the first place. One referee clearly called for a touchdown, while the other clearly called the play a touchback.
According to the NFL rulebook, Rule 8, Article 3, Item 5, “If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. However, it is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains control."
This call could have gone to either team, and an argument could be made for both sides of the call.
While this ruling would be controversial even if a professional referee crew had made the call, the fact that a replacement referee crew was officiating tonight brings an air of uncertainty to the hectic finish. Their inability to make a decisive ruling and keep the teams on the field led to even more confusion.
Unfortunately for NFL fans, replacement referees are a necessary evil and, until such a time that the NFL and the NFL Referees Association reach an agreement, fans everywhere will have to deal with uncertainty and a lack of control on Sundays. It can only be hoped that a controversial call that decided Monday Night Football will coerce the NFL to bring professional referees back soon.