NFL replacement refs: admirable effort or unacceptable incompetence?

The NFL is sticking by its replacement refs, saying they’re performing admirably. But after a Monday night game in which the refereeing clearly interrupted the game, pressure is building.

John Bazemore/AP
Denver Broncos head coach John Fox speaks to officials during the first half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons Monday in Atlanta.

With the National Football League’s 121 regular referees literally sitting on the sidelines as the result of a labor lockout, a group of zebra-striped replacements from college football’s lower divisions has been charged with creating order out of the chaos that is an NFL football game.

After struggling in the preseason and Week 1, the replacement referees were close to disastrous on occasion this past weekend. Week 2 saw the replacements make a string of noticeable and time-consuming errors, including blown and reversed calls, poor management of games where player tempers spiraled out of control, and misapplication of the rules – all of which noticeably detracted from the natural rhythm of the game.

The NFL, which experimented with replacement players during the 1987 lockout, had high hopes that fans wouldn’t notice much difference with replacement referees this year. But the comedy of errors Sunday and Monday brought the refereeing lockout to the forefront, raising the reputations – and bargaining leverage – of the regular referees.

The question is whether the NFL will care. With the league as popular as ever, some experts say it could take a game-changing blunder or a serious injury to force the NFL to meet the referees' demands.

Still, Week 2 will increase pressure on the NFL. “These missed calls and concern about the sanctity of the game is the best thing that could have ever happened for the NFL referees,” says Marc Edelman, a sports law professor at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla. “The NFL’s position here is that the referees are fungible … [but the refs' Week 2 performance] substantiates that they’re not replaceable. The greater the deviation is between regulars and replacements, the greater the demand is to pay the regular referees more.”

Monday night was a case in point. It took nearly an hour and a half to get the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos out of the first quarter. Replay officials reversed three on-field calls in the first 30 minutes of the game. Beyond that, the referees gave a fumble recovery to the Falcons despite the fact that a Bronco came out of the pile with the ball – leading to an on-field shoving match among the players. At another point, the referees mistakenly gave the Broncos 11 yards for what should have been a five-yard penalty.

Michael McCann, a sports law expert at Vermont Law School, gave the replacements' overall Week 2 effort a C-minus.

“The replacement officials are in way over their heads, and they can’t control the game at this level,” writes Bryan Burwell, a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “With the replacements on the field … NFL games were teetering on the edge of uncontrolled, borderline riots.”

The union representing the 121 regular NFL referees wants higher pay – the referees now share an annual salary package of $18 million – and better retirement benefits, all of which would cost each team approximately an extra $100,000 a year. The league says it wants to keep the status quo.

The lockout has led to one historic moment: Shannon Eastin, a college referee, became the first woman to referee an NFL game. But the replacements may also be tarnishing the league's reputation.

One official was ousted just a few hours before from refereeing a New Orleans Saints game after it became known that he was a Saints fan. Eagles running back LeSean McCoy noted on Philadelphia’s 94WIP radio station that the replacement refs are “like fans.… One of the refs was talking about his fantasy team, like, ‘McCoy, come on, I need you for my fantasy.’ Uhh, what?”

Talking about another referee, Giants player Victor Cruz told reporters, "I actually heard one of the refs, he'd only reffed glorified high school games.”

The league defended its replacements Tuesday. “Officiating is never perfect,” the league said in a statement. “The current officials have made great strides and are performing admirably.” The league said it is confident that the replacements “will show continued improvement.”

The league is making some defensible points: Regular referees make mistakes, too, and there’s no evidence that poor refereeing has seriously impacted the outcome of a game.

The league will hope that Week 3 performances improve to squelch criticism and bring back some negotiation leverage. But if concerns about player safety escalate and can be substantiated, team owners are likely to start chafing, says Professor McCann of Vermont Law School.

“As a long-term solution, clearly replacements refs are not the answer, and I assume the NFL is using them as a short-term fix to give the league some bargaining leverage,” says McCann. “There’s a distinction between games not being officiated in a credible way that leads people to question outcomes versus players getting hurt [because of bad refereeing]. If that happens, it will put the NFL in a position where they’ll have to strike a deal with the real refs.”

At the same time, McCann says to give the replacements a break. Given the NFL’s thick rule book and the difficulty of keeping track of 22 simultaneously moving players, it’s clear that they’re trying their best to do a thankless job.

“If you or I had to do it tomorrow, we’d be a disaster,” he says.

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