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Unloved officials will be missed when their stand-ins start missing calls

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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We will be pining for more than the Ed Hochuli gun show when regular refs start missing games. (Getty Images)  
We will be pining for more than the Ed Hochuli gun show when regular refs start missing games. (Getty Images)  

There have been times when anyone who has ever watched an NFL game, even from the supposedly unbiased perspective off a press box, ruminated over whether some game officials should actually have the stripes on their shirts running horizontally instead of vertically.

Go ahead, admit it: At some point you've at least mentally accused a game official of grand larceny.

Or worse.

"Sympathetic figures, we are not," noted a veteran active official to the Sports Xchange on Tuesday night, acknowledging the obvious. "I mean, who's ever felt sorry for an official, right? That's not going to change, no matter how this [lockout by the league] turns out. But if they use [replacement] officials, people from fans to the media to players are going to realize how good we are. Hell, some of them might even miss us a little bit."

Engaged in its second lockout in a year, the league announced earlier this week that negotiations with the NFL Referees Association had collapsed, and that it would immediately begin hiring and training replacements. A Tuesday report suggested the impasse could extend into the regular season, perhaps for at least a few weeks, forcing the NFL to employ retired officials, referees from professional leagues like Arena Football and zebras from non-BCS conferences.

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Nothing against the potential replacements, who doubtless will work diligently in the next few months to elevate their performance to the NFL standard. But if you berated the league's regular game officials, well, get ready to ratchet dissatisfaction, even bile, to another level.

A year ago, the NFL scored at least a split decision in its public relations tussle with its rank-and-file. This time around, the league probably has an early edge, given the perception that officials earn too much anyway for one day's work per week. And that the battle over a new collective bargaining agreement will at some point be waged at a conference table, not in a wrestling cage match with the buffed Ed Hochuli.

But the NFL's advantage could quickly disappear once games, even preseason contests, begin. Yeah, the previously cited official could be right -- the regular arbiters might actually be missed.

The 121 officials from the 2011 season averaged 11.4 seasons of NFL tenure. The average for the league's 17 referees was 14.9 years. There were only four officials with fewer than 10 seasons of NFL experience, and a like number with 20 or more years in the league.

And, despite the notion that officials work only three hours per week, they actually devote a lot more time than that to preparation. Agreed, the job is, by definition, a part-time endeavor. But the officials, most of whom hold down professional and executive-level jobs, take their assignments seriously.

No matter how experienced the stand-ins, that kind of familiarity with the game -- not just the rules, but the speed, and the respect (albeit grudging most times) of the players -- is going to be difficult to replace. And while game officials have been the targets of scorn at times, the professionalism they typically exhibit will also be missed.

The last time the league resorted to employing replacement officials, in 2001 for a preseason game and one week of the regular season, one stand-in actually asked Jerry Rice for an autograph.

It figures to be difficult for game officials to win the hearts of the public in what might be a protracted standoff. Most of the game officials the Sports Xchange contacted, nearly a dozen, wouldn't even reply with non-attributed quotes. Mike Arnold, who has been negotiating for the NFLRA, has not responded to several interview requests. The silence, for those who report on the game, has been borderline maddening.

Sometimes it's tough to garner support with only statements.

But one bad call by a replacement in a regular-season game, if the standoff lasts that long, could speak volumes for the importance of the regular officials.

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