The National Football League and the NFL Referees' Association have made little progress in their negotiations toward a new multi-year contract, which means that there's a pretty good chance we'll see replacement officials for the first time since the 2001 season. The NFLRA was locked out in June, and just as it was with the players in the 2011 lockout, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is speaking for a league that will not bend until things get desperate.
So, whether the NFL will be negatively affected or not by game officials from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, it's up to Goodell to put up a positive front. Recently in Green Bay to observe Packers training camp, Goodell said that a plan is in place, and everything is just dandy.
"That's why we've been training them for the last two months and why they're on the field now, is to make sure they're prepared, they understand the rules," Goodell said. "... We're preparing for the season and we will have officials on the field. We hope that the officials from last season will be on the field again this year but to date, we haven't been able to get an agreement that makes sense for both parties."
It's a bit hard to swallow when you have a group of part-time officials who not only have to work their way up through the ranks over years and decades, but have recently been tasked with extra responsibilities as regards player safety. If the NFL wants refs to make sure concussed players are off the field, as the league has recently mandated, it would help if those refs actually knew the pro game well enough to have a clue.
"To take seven officials who have not worked Division I games or not worked the last several years, and to put them on the field has got to be pretty unsettling not only to the players and coaches, but to the fans," NFLPA President and longtime NFL game official Scott Green said in mid-July.
"The players have plenty of things to worry about on the field; they don't need to be worrying about the officials."
Of course, everyone will be worrying about the officials; whether they're the real guys or not. Especially if Jeff Triplette is somehow involved. ESPN's Paul Kuharsky seemed unimpressed from his perch down in Jacksonville:
"I really don't pay much attention to those guys, other than the fact that I noticed none of them looked familiar," Packers guard T.J. Lang said after the practice that Goodell attended. "Talking about the refs, I don't really know what their situation is, so I can't really speak on that. But whoever they have in there, I'm sure they're going to get them coached up."
That's what Goodell would like us to believe. "We proposed an idea where we could have another 21 officials so we could help train them and have a deeper pool of officials and be able to potentially move them in and out," he said. "And that's something that we're discussing with the officials. But the whole issue is, how do we continue to improve the officials?"
Well, Rog, you'd generally want to put them on the field. In the meantime, one of the more interesting stories is that with a bevy of replacement refs, we might see the first female NFL game official. As ESPN's Jane McManus recently reported, Shannon Eastin, who has worked an Arizona Cardinals inter-squad game and has officiated at the minor college level for a number of years, may be one of those to take the stripes at the highest level.
That's great for Eastin, and a nice blow for gender equality in the abstract, but it doesn't do Eastin -- or any of the other officials -- any favors. As much as we love to castigate NFL refs (sometimes, justifiably so), the speed of the game is at an entirely different level, and that's not good for anyone involved. In addition, good luck to any of the replacement refs when they try to work their way up and get NFL jobs down the road -- just as replacement umpires have always been ostracized by the guys they replaces in Major League Baseball, how well do you think these replacements will fare when asked to work with officials who delayed their negotiations?
In short, the idea of replacement officials is a bad one for all involved, and no matter how much of a spin Goodell tries to put on it, the league will have to cave sooner than later. When it comes to refs, the devils you know are far, far better than the devils replacing them.