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Money is owners' top priority in referee lockout

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Ron Borges
Contributing writer

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Posted Aug. 30, 2012 @ 12:24 p.m. ET
By Ron Borges

The suits in New York, who care more about the brand than the game, keep saying it will get better. Privately, NFL coaches say it has to get better because it can’t get much worse.

Why a $9 billion dollar a year business would lock out the men in charge of providing law and order and replace them with mall cops is difficult to fathom unless you understand the most basic tenet of the men who now run the game you love. Their belief is simple: everything, and I mean everything, is about the money.

It’s why they are at present locking out their referees over a dispute that boils down to an average of $62,500 per team per season over the next seven years. Actually a little less because the number being argued over is a difference of about $10 million to $12 million over seven years so it’s actually less than $2 million a year but let’s make the math easy. To save roughly $62,500 a year per billionaire owner, the NFL will likely enter the season using glorified Pop Warner officials (at least one of whom was allegedly fired by the Lingerie Football League, according to former head of NFL officials Mike Pereira).

In several games last week, coaches were irate over both calls and non-calls. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis accused one official of not knowing the NFL’s defenseless receiver rule. In another, Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray was so irked he called the officials working their game against Arizona “The Three Stooges.’’

In that game, the officials repeatedly called penalties on numbers not on the field and failed to call a penalty when Titans LB Kevin Malast was punched in the groin directly in front of an official. In the Bengals’ game, safety Taylor Mays made shoulder-to-shoulder contact with Green Bay TE Tom Crabtree and was flagged for a personal foul when the rule specifically exempts such hits even if the receiver would otherwise be seen as defenseless.

The suits will tell you it’s not so bad. They say these folks, who mostly work Division II football and have no experience with the speed of an NFL game, will get better. They say they’re being trained. Well, if you still have to train them it would seem they aren’t ready, no?

The NFL claims it’s offering its officials raises of five to 11 percent. The NFL Referees Association says it’s more like 2.82 percent and long term likely will become a cut because the league wants to add three more crews, which would cut the number of games the present officials work. Since the referees get paid per game, you can see the direction their pay is headed.

But there are larger issues at work here, the first being that the NFL is the only professional team sport without full-time officials. The suits want at least seven full-timers but are refusing to tell the NFLRA what the job pays. Who would willingly leave a job as a trial lawyer, school administrator or businessman to take one without even knowing what it pays?

The second problem is that despite being part-time employees, the officials are covered under a better pension plan than what the league now offers full-timers. Frankly, that might say more about what the NFL has become than it does about the officials, but one can see the dilemma there and you don’t have to have an economics degree to know which way the owners are headed on that issue.

“We’ve offered raises of 5 to 11 percent,’’ NFL vice president of football operations Ray Anderson told Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz last week. “Just because the owners can afford to pay more doesn’t mean you do it. You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game.’’

True, but cost some team a playoff spot because of a blown call or 10 and see how important that $62,500 savings looks. Owners make five to 10 times that just in the parking lot the day of a game.

So why would a multi-BILLION dollar business that claims it spends every waking hour wringing its collective hands over the safety of its players put mall cops in charge of one of the most physical and anti-social endeavors in sports? For the same reason they put last season in jeopardy by locking out the players. For too many NFL owners today it’s not about the game it’s only about the money, of which there is plenty but never enough.


Ron Borges is a columnist for the Boston Herald.

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