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In labor squabble, who helps NFL refs? Nobody, not even NFL players

by | National NFL Insider
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To some anonymous NFL players, officials are nothing more than turkeys in striped shirts. (Getty Images)  
To some anonymous NFL players, officials are nothing more than turkeys in striped shirts. (Getty Images)  

The NFL's game officials are locked out and engaged in a nasty labor battle with owners. If the refs are searching for sympathy from players, well, they might want to look elsewhere.

The NFL Players Association has expressed complete solidarity with the officials. But on the ground, where it counts, players themselves are far less sympathetic. In fact, it's safe to say they don't give a damn.

"The refs aren't the same as players," said one longtime player veteran. "There are very few players who sympathize."

Why? The answer is interesting.

"They don't need the money," said another player, who earns slightly above the league minimum. "Some of those guys make more than some of the players."

One player called the refs, as a group, "Mitt Romney." It was meant as a cold-blooded insult.

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There is of course a great deal of hypocrisy: Players who earn huge paychecks saying they have no sympathy for also-wealthy officials; players, members of a union, not exactly showing solidarity with another union under siege.

But there is a bigger issue, one that plays directly into the hands of the NFL and will sink the officials. If the game officials aren't getting sympathy from the players, that says they're unlikely to find it anywhere else.

What differentiates the squabbling officials and the players (who about a year ago emerged from a lockout of their own) is simple: Players are not expendable. This is the truth. Replacement officials will be awful but the game will go on. They can be replaced -- awkwardly -- but there will be football.

When players strike, they are not replaceable. You cannot substitute Keanu Reeves for Tom Brady. Doesn't work. The difference is too stark and most fans won't watch.

Many fans will tolerate, for a moment, a fake, fat ref. Most will not, even for a millisecond, tolerate a fake player.

This is the dilemma the officials face. No one cares until a replacement ref blows a call -- but that won't be for months. Until then, the game officials are totally screwed because no one gives a damn about their plight.

The players union cares and will fight alongside the refs.

"The NFL Players Association is concerned about the NFL's decision to lock out professional referees and recruit scabs to serve as referees in NFL games for the 2012 season," the NFLPA said. "In 2011, the NFL tasked officials with increased responsibilities in protecting player health and safety, and its search for scabs undermines that important function.

"Professional athletes require professional referees, and we believe in the NFL Referees Association's trained first responders. The NFLPA will continue to monitor the league's actions in this situation."

But the union is the only group that cares and that won't change.

It's unfair to portray all game officials as zebras born with silver spoons in their mouths. Many are indeed wealthy but others are professionals in other fields who are NFL game officials because they love the sport.

That won't mend what clearly is a strained relationship between officials and on-the-ground players. Every indication players give me is that if the officials set up a picket line, players won't honor it, maybe in part because doing so might technically violate the labor agreement between players and owners. However, it's doubtful the NFL would take any serious action if some players honored a picket line. For the moment, there is no desire to help game officials in any way.

"Status quo," a player said.

One player representative said there are also some bitter feelings from the players' lockout. The game officials, the player explained, didn't exactly support the players during their lockout. In fact, historically, players haven't supported the game officials' labor causes, and the game officials rarely have expressed public support for the players.

So this is where we are. The officials are locked out and no one gives a damn, and won't, unless a replacement ref ruins a game.

No, for now, no one cares. Not even the players with whom they share the field on Sundays.

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