NFL fans throw the flag on replacement officials

September 27, 2012 | 11 a.m.

The referee lockout takes its toll on professional football

Sports | Jared Nelson for The Clarion

NFL fans throw the flag on replacement officials

Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier takes out his frustration on a side judge in a home game last year. While many have groaned about officials in the past, coaches, players and fans alike are seriously questioning the competency of replacement officials this season. | Courtesy of Jeff Wheeler/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT

The NFL season is in full swing, and the top story among football aficionados is not about a budding superstar, a key injury or another Brett Favre comeback. Instead, labor negotiations between the officials and the league office are creating a buzz among football fans everywhere. 

The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the league and officials expired at the end of last season, and efforts to create a new CBA have stalled. As a result, the owners have locked the officials out of work. In their absence, the league has employed 140 replacement officials who will serve as field judges, referees and linesmen until a permanent settlement can be reached.

At the center of the issue is the almighty dollar. According to's Darren Rovell, the average pay for NFL game officials last season was $149,000. Under the NFL's last proposal, that would increase to more than $189,000 by 2018, but the National Football League Referee's Association is still not willing to sign on the dotted line. 

This is not an unprecedented issue for the league and officials. Replacement refs appeared in Week 1 of 2001, but a settlement was reached and the lockout quickly became an afterthought. Fast forward to 2012, and there is an obvious difference. The gap between what the refs are asking for and what the league is willing to give them is much larger, leaving coaches, players and fans perplexed.

“I'm really frustrated,” said Bethel junior Quinn Gorski. “This is a million dollar problem for a billion dollar league.” 

Gorski is right. For a league with a yearly revenue of over $9 billion, a few hundred thousand dollars per referee is barely noticeable in the empire that the NFL has grown to be. 

More than anything, the fans just want the best possible product on the field. According to Bethel’s junior quarterback Tom Keefe, the performance of the replacement officials is affecting the integrity of the game. 

“The players are taking advantage of the refs,” he said. “They know they can get away with some things that they probably wouldn't have been able to get away with if the refs had a few more years under their belt.” 

Gorski likens the situation to that of a class with a substitute teacher. “The class always acts a little different with a sub,” he said. “They just don't command the same respect as the regular teacher.” 

There is no doubt that the game has a slightly different feel with replacement referees blowing whistles, throwing flags and keeping the players in line. They have certainly been the most recent target of frustrated fans. But is it fair to expect the same quality of officiating out of the replacements? 

“They shouldn't necessarily be held to the same standard,” said Keefe. “But, as fans, we want the same quality of play. We want to see the integrity of the game maintained. As an employee of the NFL, you're going to be subject to high expectations, and that's just the way it is.” 

At the end of the day, the coaches will still coach, the players will still play and the fans will still tune in to watch the most popular sport in America. 

“As professional athletes, you have to make a lot of adjustments,” Gorski said. “This is just another adjustment the players will have to make."


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