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A LEAGUE AT THE CROSSROADS
PETER KING
July 30, 2012
Once seemingly impervious to criticism, the NFL embarks on the 2012 season plagued by issues that threaten its invincibility
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July 30, 2012

A League At The Crossroads

Once seemingly impervious to criticism, the NFL embarks on the 2012 season plagued by issues that threaten its invincibility

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The admission by the NFL front office that it can't verify a key piece of evidence against Hargrove opens a hole in the case that Vilma and the others will try to exploit. It also bolsters the Saints' belief that in punishing the team, Goodell used a bazooka to kill a muskrat. There was an illicit program in place—even the Saints admit to a pay-for-performance pool—but was it enough to merit the suspension of coaches, players and G.M. Mickey Loomis for a total of 77 games, while the Patriots' Spygate scandal in 2007 resulted in no suspensions?

Asked last week how he felt about Goodell, Hargrove's answer was surprising: "My heart goes out to Roger. He's dealing with so much right now. He's got a number of people attacking him. I feel bad for him."

LOCKOUT II: THE ZEBRAS

Every summer the NFL conducts a three-day training course for its 120 game officials, providing updates on new rules and points of emphasis. At last weekend's session in Dallas, however, familiar faces such as Mike Carey and Ed Hochuli were nowhere to be found. The participants were replacement referees from the college and high school ranks. The NFL's lockout began early last month, but in Big D it got serious: Each official lost out on the $1,500 per day the league pays them for training sessions. Most officials also work four or five days in NFL training camps for the same amount; preseason games bring them more money. So the lockout has already cost the refs $4,500 each. By the end of August they could be out thousands more.

The sticking points are money and the retirement program. The NFL proposes to gradually raise the average pay for officials from $149,000 in 2011 to $189,000 in '18; the officials want more. The league also wants to move from a defined retirement plan to a 401(k); the officials want to keep the current system. "What's alarming," said a source close to the officials last Saturday, "is there's so much more animosity between the two sides than there was the last time there was a stoppage."

When officials went on strike for one game in 2001, major-college refs filled in. That won't happen this time. NFL refs now serve as supervisors of officials for five major conferences—the Big East, Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten and Conference USA—and they won't allow officials from those conferences to work NFL games. The source said that, in solidarity with the NFL zebras, supervisors in other FBS conferences won't allow their officials to work NFL games either. That means the replacements will come from high schools or lower levels of college, or be retired and/or dismissed college refs.

Asked last Saturday how concerned he was about the possibility of NFL officials being sidelined for regular-season games, players' association executive director DeMaurice Smith said, "On a scale of 1 to 10? Twelve. The officials are being asked to be first responders on the field for player safety as well as to officiate the games. How do you expect officials not used to doing games at that level to be able to step in and handle the job? To use a [lockout] as a motivational tactic in negotiations ... we find repulsive."

The NFL Referees Association says it's seeking the equivalent of $100,000 per team per season, plus the retention of the pension system, over the life of the seven-year deal. It will be difficult for Goodell, who has spoken repeatedly about the integrity of the game this off-season, to justify not having the best officials on the field—particularly when the replacements would be patchwork crews from far down the ranks of the game.

TOUGH TRANSITIONS

Seau's death at age 43 was the latest spur for the NFL to improve its life-after-football programs. The league will soon launch a mental health hotline that any current or former player can call confidentially, a program that would be funded by the league but run by independent counselors. It's a smart thing to do, and the NFL has to try innovative solutions to a problem that seems to be growing in scope. But it's questionable whether this move will prompt more players to seek professional help. As Goodell told SI last month, "We've had mental health forums where [players] could come with their spouses and [discuss] different challenges ... what to look for, how to deal with it, how to manage it. Very few players showed up. It's the same old thing—we have a lot of individuals who have tremendous pride, and they're not always going to raise their hand and say, 'I may need help.' But we all need help."

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