DETROIT - DECEMBER 05: Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz argues an Unnecessary Roughness call on Ndamukong Suh #90 by NFL referee Ed Hochuli #85 during the fourth quarter of the game against the Chicago Bears at Ford Field on December 5 2010 in Detroit Michigan. The Bears defeated the Lions 24-20. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
The NFL is exploring the use of replacement referees after negotiations with the NFL Referees Association fell flat. There's no other way to describe this but as a disaster waiting to happen.
The NFL and the NFL Referees Association have hit an impasse in their talks, one that not even the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service can resolve. The two sides, whose agreement expired at the end of May, couldn't come to a decision on a new CBA and, while there's still time, the NFL has made the decision to explore replacement referees in the scenario that the two sides can't reach a deal.
This is simply a negotiating strategy by the NFL and we likely won't see replacement referees in regular season games. The use of replacement referees has the potential to be a disaster due to the lower quality of officiating, health and safety concerns and putting even more strain on the relationship between the NFL and NFLPA.
The NFL is looking at a few spots for potential replacement referees, which includes retired college referees and even Arena league referees. One area where they're not looking for replacements is the BCS, perhaps the only place in which there might be qualified referees.
Because of this, the quality of referees would likely be significantly lower. When you're operating in a billion dollar business, you can't have something as critical as officiating decrease in quality. Whether it's because of a blown call that leads to an injury or changes the outcome of the game, I wouldn't be surprised to see grievances and/or lawsuits stemming from the use of replacement referees.
Something else to consider is that many of the referees who could be qualified to officiate an NFL game likely won't want to leave their current job for only the chance that they could work in the NFL. Is one of the top college referees going to leave his job only to find out a month later that the NFL and NFLRA came to an agreement and his services aren't needed? With that in mind, the quality of referees could be even lower than you'd initially think.
The second issue involves the health and safety of players, a key point in last year's labor talks between the owners and players. NFL players are already expressing their concern with the possibility of using replacement referees. Chiefs offensive tackle Eric Winston sarcastically said on Twitter that this is going to go over "REAL well." Others have chimed in as well expressing concern.
The players reaction this week isn't much different than what it was 11 years ago, the last time the NFL explored replacement referees due to a labor disagreement. Back in 2001:
But Dolphins tight end Hunter Goodwin, the team's NFL Players Association representative, said he has been approached by teammates concerned about "safety, as well as the integrity of the game" if replacement officials were used.
"It's going to be a tough call to throw a college guy out there into an NFL situation with a fast-paced game, as well as some of the rules being different," Goodwin said. "The hashes are different. There are a lot of different nuances to the game."
The referees, dubbed the "first responders" by the NFLPA, seem to have more responsibility these days with the league's emphasis on the healthy and safety (read: concussions) of players. It seems concerning then that replacement referees would not only be quickly learning the officiating rules of the NFL game, but also getting caught up to speed on their roles involving health and safety.
The use of replacement referees -- even the threat of using them -- is already creating an even more toxic environment between the NFL and the NFLPA. The lockout ended last year, but the feuds between the two sides have not. The Players Association issued a statement on Monday showing support for the Referees Association and the statement mentions twice the NFL's use of "scabs".
The NFL Players Association is concerned about the NFL's decision to lock out professional referees and recruit scabs to serve as referees in NFL games for the 2012 season.
In 2011, the NFL tasked officials with increased responsibilities in protecting player health and safety, and its search for scabs undermines that important function.
Professional athletes require professional referees, and we believe in the NFL Referees Association's trained first responders. The NFLPA will continue to monitor the league's actions in this situation.
The NFLRA isn't happy either. It claims the NFL walked out on the negotiating sessions (while the NFL says it didn't). If that all sounds familiar, it should. It's a similar process that we saw unfold last summer with the NFL and NFLPA going through the lockout.
It will be extremely difficult for the NFL to convince not only the players but the fans as well that the use of replacement referees wouldn't be a mound of problems. Because there's seemingly no way to make sense of the use of replacement referees, I continue to believe that it won't get to that point and the NFL and NFLRA will come to an agreement sometime before the preseason begins.