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The Replacements - Referee Edition

Aug. 17, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA; This guy?  You want him to work NFL football? Wow...Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
Aug. 17, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA; This guy? You want him to work NFL football? Wow...Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

You all remember that unbelievably bad movie with, in my opinion, the greatest actor of our time (where is that sarcasm font) Keanu Reeves, Gene Hackman and Jon Favreau, right? An NFL players strike prompts a team owner to bring in a group of rag-tag, never-were castoffs to keep the games going. "Hilarity" ensues as a these folks come together and beat an actual team of NFL players as the strike ends. A feel good story if I've ever seen one.

If only all Replacements could be so good. The NFL Referee's Association lockout that is currently wreaking havoc on our national past time has shown us that this is real life, not a Hollywood script.

I come at this story from a unique perspective as I spend 5 months a year as a baseball umpire in Northeast Indiana. I have worked everything from 6 year old tee ball up through NAIA level college ball. While this means I have sympathy for officials because I understand what they are going through on the field, I also tend to hold them to a high standard of knowing the rules and calling them as they are written.

NFLRA officials are paid well (average $149,000 per year, still the lowest of all the major sports leagues) so they should know the rules and be prepared to take the pressure. The fight, as always revolves around money and benefits. I find the fits points boring so I won't even bother.

My beef right now is with the NFL.

When the NFL last had a lockout of the NFLRA (through regular season week 2 in 2001), they "called up" officials that were on a "waiting list" for NFL games. These folks were high-level D-I officials that had put in the work to be ready for NFL level games. They did a fairly decent job. Not so this time.

The Replacements this time around are officials that worked in leagues like the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and (I was actually unaware there was such a league) the Lingerie Football League. These are leagues at least 5 steps away from the NFL. As anyone who has worked in any field will tell you, there is a pecking order to these things. To get from the Lingerie League to the NFL should be a 7 year process, with time to get comfortable at each level. The NFL has thrown all that out the window. They gave them 3 months.

What the NFL is doing here would be like Major League Baseball calling me to work the Cubs game next weekend. While I would try my hardest, as I am sure these replacements are, I would not be prepared to work at the highest level. I like to think I would hold my own, but I know there would be things I'm not prepared for. The speed, the athletic ability, the knowledge and quick reference to past situations would not be there. I would be drowning. That is what is happen right now with these officials.

We are at a tipping point where comedy (missed holding calls and punts downed at the 4 called touchbacks) could turn into tragedy (helmet to helmet hit ending a career). Pre-season speed in nowhere near regular season speed. If things are being missed now, what will happen then?

Players will always try to push it to the next level, try to see what they can get away with. These officials do not have the respect of the players and the coaches, and therefore, do not have control. (I'm think of a game this pre-season where the officials looked at a ball spot replay and confirmed the spot. Then a coach challenged the same thing. The Replacement said " There's a challenge so we'll take another look.") Why not just give the coach a flag and let him throw it from the sideline. Or better yet, let the players call their own fouls (Can't you see Freeney pulling a flag out and dropping during a speed rush around the end?).

My umpire supervisor has a saying, "The biggest game you work should not be the highest level you've ever worked." It keeps officials from feeling in over their heads. It is clear to anyone watching the games that these Replacements are in too deep. These are both the biggest game and the highest level they have worked. Not a good combo.

I make this plea to the NFL; Fix this dispute with the refs. Not only is it messing with our favorite game, but the lack of control shown so far is going to lead to someone getting hurt. Get to the table and negotiate.