|Smith says NFL values money over safety. (AP)|
UPDATE: CBSSports.com's Mike Freeman obtained a copy of a memo sent from the league informing all 32 NFL teams that replacement officials will be on the field to start the regular season.
T-minus seven days and counting until the NFL regular season officially begins. The Cowboys will face the Giants on national television, and unless something changes in the ensuing 173 hours, it will be with replacement officials.
This possibility troubles a lot of people, most recently, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. He told the New York Times this week that “I've said before that on a scale of 1 to 10, I think this is a 12. With the regular season approaching, my level of concern (about player safety) is only increasing.”
Smith reiterated those sentiments to Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter.
“In America it is the employer's obligation to provide as safe a working environment as possible,” he said. “We believe that if the National Football League fails in that obligation we reserve the right to seek any relief that we believe is appropriate. The NFL has chosen to prevent the very officials that they have trained, championed and cultivated for decades to be on the field to protect players and -- by their own admission -- further our goal of enhanced safety. That is absurd on its face.”
When put like that, yeah, it is absurd. And safety -- more than the enforcement of mundane rules -- is the chief concern for many players.
Former VP of officials Mike Pereira, who now works for Fox Sports, said earlier this month that for the NFL to lock out officials with a combined 1,400 years of experience "strongly compromises the integrity of the game."
Smith continued this theme when talking to Trotter. He noted three developments -- strides to make the game safer, the NFL giving officials more power to spot and deal with concussions during games, and the league maintaining an experience corps of officials -- before making his point.
"When you look at the referees combined, you're talking about nearly 1,500 years of NFL experience," Smith said. "The National Football League puts such an emphasis on experience that in normal situations they only introduce a rookie referee into the league with a team of experienced officials. All three of those things are unassailable facts, so given those three facts why would anyone choose to break away from the one new referee with a team of experienced referees and go to a full slate of new referees? The only conclusion that I have is that the league cares more about money than it does about the experience of the referees as a vehicle to increase player safety."
Again, it's hard to argue with Smith. Meanwhile, the league contends that the replacement officials will continue to improve (which is true if for no other reason than it would be almost impossible for them to get worse).
“We will not come out and say they are without their warts," Ray Anderson, the NFL VP for football operations, said recently. "But we will say that we've seen improvement every week. At the end of it, we are very confident that this group of current officials will be credible.”
Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, voicing many of the same concerns as other players and coaches, disagrees. Vehemently.
"It's one of those things where you just look out there and it's like the difference between having a high-school guy play in the NFL versus an NFL guy playing in the NFL," Kluwe said Tuesday according to FoxSportsNorth.com. "The speed's totally different. Those guys are trying hard, but they're just not used to the speed of the game and they're missing a lot of stuff."
Some owners -- Jerry Jones, for example -- hasn't noticed a difference with the replacement refs. Smith has a question for them: "Why would (the owners) ever want to leave the game in critical moments in the hands of referees that they ordinarily would never hire? I mean, If these referees were so credible, how come they hadn't hired them before the lockout?"
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