Sometime early in the NFL season a bad call from a replacement official will decide a game, and the league will go rushing back to the negotiating table to get a deal done with its 119 regular officials, who were locked out last week after the league and the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) failed to reach a contract agreement. Or will it? "Why?" asks one member of the NFL's influential competition committee. "Every season a few games are decided by bad calls, and we live with them."
In other words, the league is content to put up with mistakes rather than settle for a deal it doesn't want. The NFL has offered to increase officials' salaries (which range from $25,000 for newcomers to $100,000 for top veterans) by 40% this year and another 100% in 2003; the NFLRA's counterproposal asks for a 400% increase. The refs contend that the demands on their time have grown exponentially since their last labor agreement, in 1994, while the league notes that unlike their counterparts in other sports, most NFL officials have other full-time jobs. "The regular officials are moonlighters," says Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "They need to join the real world."
Barring an 11th-hour breakthrough—and the NFL clearly isn't counting on one, since it has guaranteed the replacements $8,000 each for four weeks of games—early-season matchups will be manned by a collection of Arena-ball, NFL Europe and low-level college officials. What should you expect from the new guys? For one thing, they're likely to swallow the whistle as they get used to the dozens of (mostly minor) rules differences between the college and pro games. Notably, no flags were thrown in the first 25 minutes of last Thursday's Eagles-Jets preseason game. Also, the speed of an NFL game is likely to vex the new crews. Last Friday, Bucs safety John Howell was flagged for unnecessary roughness on Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, even though both of Vick's feet were inbounds when Howell shoved Vick. In addition, the bane of every official, pass interference, is sure to see many interpretations by the hodgepodge crew. As Riley Johnson, a replacement ref from Clemson, S.C., says, "We've got a long way to go."