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Game Time Substitution: NFL Referees Step in While Union Strikes Persist

September 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Labor disputes over pay and pensions among members of the NFL Referees Unions spilled over into the start of the football season. But that doesn't mean professional football season has suspended. Instead substitute referees are calling the games. Jeffrey Brown talks to NPR's Mike Pesca for more.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally tonight, professional football’s regular season kicked off this week with the New York Giants taking on the Dallas Cowboys. But there were some new faces on the field who were not young stars selected in the draft.

Replacement refs are standing in for members of the NFL referees union, who were locked out by the league in a labor dispute over pay and pensions.

And there was more late-breaking football news this afternoon. An appeals panel lifted the suspensions of several players in the so-called bounty scandal, in which players were accused of receiving money from a pool intended to reward them for purposely injuring opponents.

Mike Pesca has been covering both these stories for NPR. And he joins me now from New York.

So, Mike, let’s start with the latest, the latest news here. Who is this panel and what exactly has it decided?

MIKE PESCA, NPR: Yes, this is a panel that got to oversee what commissioner Roger Goodell decreed. And, so far, the commissioner has pretty much ruled with an iron fist.

In this case, there was this bounty-gate case where players were rewarded for things like interceptions and turnovers, but the members of the Saints were also awarded, it would seem, for knocking out opponents and carting them off the field.

So the commissioner suspended a bunch of players, Jonathan Vilma, a linebacker, for the whole season, three other players. And the players had been appealing this, had been losing.

But they just got a win. Now, I think this ruling has been widely and wildly misinterpreted, because you see the headline that the players win on appeal, and you figure, oh, these guys will now be playing going forward.

What this panel really said was that the commissioner overstepped his bounds a little bit. In fact, they said he possibly overstepped his bounds because the suspension was based on two things, as the commissioner articulated it.

One was the intent to injure. The other was, because there was payment, that would violate the salary cap or be a problem with compensation. And all the panel said was, the commissioner is not allowed to give any suspensions based on the compensation issue.

So, if the commissioner goes back and says, I’m re-suspending these players just based on the intent issue, which that’s what the panel actually urged the commissioner to do, I could see them getting kind of re-suspended almost immediately.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so we’re going to have to wait to see what happens with that news.

Now, to this other story, the replacement referees, fill in some of the details just quickly for us here on the labor dispute itself. What is this about?

MIKE PESCA: Pay, pension.

The league wants to turn some of these officials — these are part-time officials. They referee and get paid maybe $10,000 to ref a game on Sunday, but they’re teachers, they’re lawyers, they have other jobs. So, the league wants to turn them full-time.

And then there’s disagreement about how much pay is at stake. Keep in mind, the NFL is an industry that is going to be making $10 billion a year, maybe not this year, but next year. And what these guys are arguing over, what the NFL referees and the league is arguing over, about $10 million, maybe even less. If you do the math per team, it’s a few hundred thousands dollars a team.

But I think what the league wants to do is show it doesn’t matter if it’s a little bit of money. We don’t feel we have to pay them. They’re sending a signal for the next time they negotiate with players, hey, we could be really strong-willed in negotiations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tough sport and a tough league, huh?

So who are the replacements and what kind of — clearly, they were having some impact on the preseason games, including some even comic moments. And then there was a game, the first game on Wednesday.

MIKE PESCA: Well, God love them for making the preseason somewhat interesting, right?

(LAUGHTER)

MIKE PESCA: Sometimes, they would turn and face the wrong way. They seemed to mumble and stutter and not know sometimes which teams were playing, penalty on Atlanta — oh, wait a minute. Penalty on Arizona, I meant.

And these guys, they’re not the top tier of officials available. They’re not big-time college refs. They’re Division II and III referees. One guy even referred in the Lingerie Football League, which is exactly what it sounds like, horrifically, women in lingerie, and this guy was calling offsides.

So they haven’t really covered themselves in glory. Game one of the regular season, those guys were fine, but everyone loves the comedic aspect of going through the bumbled calls.

And if you could put together a lowlight tape, that might be the sort of impetus where the NFL and some of its owners will say, you know what? Enough of this embarrassment. Let me gather together the change that is left in my couch essentially for these billionaire owners and settle this disagreement with the refs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, just in our last minute, Mike, I mean, one question for those who don’t follow football is — and this sort of raises the whole issue — how important is a referee anyway, right?

What does a referee do? What difference might it make it the games as season really gets under way this starting Sunday?

MIKE PESCA: Right.

And passionate football fans say, hey, the best refs in the world blow calls left and right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

MIKE PESCA: But the players’ whole issue that safety could be at stake, I don’t know, it might seem hard to clearly, definitively say one blown call led to an injury.

But it’s sort of the pace of the game. The games are so much slower with these replacement refs, the announcement that they make towards the camera. And there’s a lot of intricate rules. The replacement refs and NFL will say, football is football. But the NFL itself has a lot of different rules and a lot of weird rules that they don’t have on the local level.

And for all the money that fans are asked to pay, especially in person, to have it undone by referees who are much less professional than anyone on the field, it doesn’t seem in keeping with this soon-to-be-$10-billion-a-year industry.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mike Pesca of NPR, thanks so much.

MIKE PESCA: You’re welcome.