|There still remains the strong possibility that the NFL will have replacement officials this fall. (Getty Images)|
If last offseason was any indication, the NFL isn't one to blink. When the lockout with the players finally ended in late July, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell remained as powerful as ever, something that has already come back to haunt the Saints and their involvement in the bounty scandal. This offseason, the league has locked out its game officials and the plan is to use replacement refs should the two sides fail to come to terms before the start of the season in early September.
Earlier this week, former NFL official Jerry Markbreit, along with eight others, were fired for refusing to train these replacement refs, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
"The NFL never actually told us in writing we were fired," Markbreit said. "However, they took our computers back, and they shut off the NFL website as they did to all of the officials. We feel that we're fired. They haven't formally notified us, but it sure feels like we're fired."
Markbreit, who served as an NFL official for 33 years, retired in 1999, and spent the last decade training others, decided to take a stand against the league.
"They wanted us to train the replacements, which we would absolutely not do," he said. "We were all officials for 20-plus years .… How could we face our people? There wasn't a question about us doing this. We knew this was coming. It's very discouraging for [the league] to have put us in this kind of situation."
There's something to be said for loyalty, but there's also something to be said for the league's ruthlessness. Goodell showed last summer than PR means little when it doesn't align with his goals. Right now, the NFL isn't interested in negotiating a new contract. This could threaten all the progress made in player safety -- at least to hear two locked out referees explain it.
NFL Referees Association president Scott Green and and past president Ed Hochuli said earlier this week that by using replacement officials the league is jeopardizing the players' health.
"To take seven officials who have not worked Division I (college) games or not worked the last several years,'' Green said according to the Associated Press, "and to put them on the field has got to be pretty unsettling not only to the players and coaches, but to the fans. The players have plenty of things to worry about on the field, they don't need to be worrying about the officials.''
Hochuli added that "There is no game if the competitive nature of the game is not being controlled."
This seems perfectly reasonably to anyone who has ever watched a high school or college game and then marveled at the speed, athleticism, and viciousness with with the NFL version is played. Not surprisingly, the league disagrees.
"Our goal is to maintain the highest quality of officiating for our teams, players, and fans, including proper enforcement of the playing rules and efficient management of our games," the NFL said in a statement. "We are confident that these game officials will enforce rules relating to player safety. Contrary to NFLRA leadership, we do not believe that players will 'play dirty' or intentionally break the rules.''
Meanwhile, Ron Botchan, who works with Markbreit and was an umpire in five Super Bowls, has no idea what the future holds for him and his colleagues.
“We're in limbo,” he said. “We're so upset with them .… We've done a lot for that league.”
UPDATE, 6:35 p.m. ET: League spokesman Michael Signora has responded, telling PFT: "The officiating trainers have not been fired. They are seasonal employees who have decided not to work at this time. We asked for their NFL-issued laptops back so that those who are working right now can use them."
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