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No hand? OK replacements weaken position of locked-out officials

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These replacements really haven't been too bad, locked-out refs should note. (US Presswire)  
These replacements really haven't been too bad, locked-out refs should note. (US Presswire)  

If I am a locked out NFL official, I'm starting to sweat a little bit. Week 1 wasn't a disaster for their replacements, far from it, and the league's resolve to hold a strong line in its negotiations with its on-field officials should not be understated.

This high-stakes game of chicken could end up seriously backfiring. I'd be concerned.

The challenges here for the officials, and their public relations and negotiating team, were always going to be steep. They are going up against a monster, in the NFL, a lawyered-up, all-powerful institution that has no real competition and generations of experience waging these labor wars. Officials themselves are not sympathetic figures in any sport -- it's one of the thankless parts of the gig -- and for years if anything the rallying cry from fans and media alike has been to try to make these refs better, hold them more accountable and make them something more than seasonal employees.

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Then, add in the economic crisis that has gripped this country -- and these guys are negotiating over their moonlighting gigs, as they have other jobs outside of football -- and the fact that with a few exceptions Week 1 went better than most would have expected with the replacement officials, and it's going to be difficult for the locked-out officials to turn that tide.

Now more than even the gamble is that a game -- or in reality, it's going to take games, plural -- will be won or lost due intrinsically to the officiating of the replacements. Or some major player-safety issue would have to arise. And trust me, through enhanced infrastructure and extra sets of eye communicating with these refs from the press box and sidelines and who knows where else, the NFL is doing everything within its power to prevent just that.

With each week that goes by, those who are waxing nostalgic about the good 'ol days of Ed Hochuli's biceps, become fewer and fewer. Unlike the preseason, when the product on the field was largely crap and we had nothing much to do as a football nation other than obsess over the replacement refs, now we have actual storylines and real games being played like every three days, and fantasy football rosters to juggle.

The plotline about the plight of the locked-out official will subside. The replacements figure only to get more comfortable turning on their mics and more comfortable calling games as the weeks mount. The reality is, the worst might already be behind them.

We need only look back at the most recent battle between the players and these owners to see that over time, it's more likely that things are yanked off the table by management than added, and it remains a topic of great debate as to how much the NFLPA really gained between its decertification in March -- and the deal that was on the table at that time -- versus what was eventually agreed to in the summer. (Many would say not much).

And that, my friends, was with the players. You know, the guys people line up in droves at 7 a.m. on sticky summer mornings to watch practice at training camp. The guys whose names are on the back of the jerseys that people willingly spend hundreds of dollars to purchase. The guys who are the very product people come to see and watch by the tens of millions every weekend.

The only time officials are in the limelight is when they screw up, and as everyone can attest to, that happens quite a bit. It's human nature, and their jobs are incredibly difficult and they deserve to be well compensated and taken care of. But just go back and look at how a prolonged and pronounced work stoppage worked out for the Major League Baseball umps a while back. The game goes on, and can leave you behind. Quickly. With barely a trace.

This is big, big business. Football is a multi-billion dollar industry and the NFL isn't going to blink here anytime soon. I'm not condoning it or making an ethical stand on the state of labor relations or what's right and what's wrong. In full disclosure, I'm a fairly hardcore pro union guy. But you have to maintain a keen understanding of leverage and one's place in the game at a pivotal time like this, and be certain not to overplay your hand or your stake.

In virtually every job, in virtually every walk of life, we can all be replaced, and the machine churns on.

I'm just telling you how it works and what the officials are up against, and with each week that their replacements do an even remotely adequate job, it takes away from the stance of those being locked out. As much as people mock the backgrounds of the replacement refs, if these guys (and one gal) can get through games with even half-decent marks with limited training and just coming in cold before the preseason and being thrown together, then what does that say for the locked out guys seeking further economic benefits?

Life is about compromise, and capitalizing when you have some leverage and riding things out at other times. We can dissect whether or not the NFL should be more willing to share more of its spoils as it searches for global domination, with its officials, and perhaps it should. But it exists as something of a monopoly, there is no other comparable pro league in this sport on this planet, there are only so many of these jobs to go around, and if there are no outside forces pushing the league to alter its stance, then it ain't changing.

Ask the coaches, many of whom lost pension benefits and other perks during the lockout, how that goes. I don't support it, but I can recognize that it happened there, and the if the coaches and players couldn't come close to getting everything they want in these types of settings, then the officials sure as hell are in for an uphill climb.

The deeper the season goes on, the more likely it becomes that the league could see some of these replacements as more viable longterm employees. The longer this goes, the more likely it becomes that some of the better college officials might find themselves on the NFL's radar. The league will continue to rely on technology and new forms of communication to bail out the guys in the zebra stripes in the meantime.

If you are throwing down with 32 of the richest guys in the country, who are banded together by the vast fortunes they can continue to earn as part of this league, you had better bring some serious artillery with you. They didn't get mega-rich by trying to cut anything other than the best deals they possibly can, and they are of a singular mind on this issue. You won't find one of them going rogue and bemoaning the state of the game with replacement refs.

Maybe if enough of them get burned by the new guys, and it hits them in the standings, then eventually that changes. But they have a pretty good way about keeping a united public front, and the deeper into the season this goes, the more perilous things become for those on the outside. What looks like a major concession today might be nothing compared to all that is eventually lost trying to get a deal done next week or next month.


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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