(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist
Sometimes you put a foot down wrong and don’t find out for a week or two that you actually dislocated a hip. That’s how it’s going to be if the NFL sticks with its plan to start the regular season with replacement referees – from mild annoyance to major pain to humongous regret. And all because the people in charge are too used to getting their way.
Right now, it’s still the preseason. Few people are paying serious attention and no one gets too worked up about results. So all those madcap officiating moments not only make for great TV bloopers, they gloss over all the other blown or missed calls that would have infuriated fans otherwise. It didn’t matter if you were rooting for the Giants or Patriots or neither during Wednesday night’s exhibition. Everybody could laugh when replacement ref Don King mangled his first explanation of which team committed what penalty. Then he screwed it up even more during what he optimistically announced would be ”the correction on the reporting of the foul.”
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Imagine how funny that would have been the last time the Giants and Pats met, at the end of that weeklong little extravaganza the NFL likes to call the Super Bowl.
What isn’t funny, either, is how many people think they could do the referees’ jobs.
Too many fans think of them as the best-paid, part-time workers in America – a lucky 120 or so guys who have day jobs and when they’re not working NFL games – at roughly $5,500 a pop – spend their spare time doing eye exercises or throwing tissues at the upholstered furniture in their living room and yelling ”false start.”
That’s also why, most of the time, the NFL goes out of its way to combat that perception. It boasts how good its officials actually are getting calls right the first time, posting accuracy ratings that routinely top 98 percent, then providing backups that range from an instant-replay system on game days that would make the Department of Homeland Security jealous, followed a day later by peer- and film-based reviews of officiating performances down to the minutest details.
But all the praise dries up at times like these. Suddenly, after standing by its officials no matter what, the NFL wants you to believe it knows where to round up another hundred or so just as good by making a few phone calls. The league locked out the refs in June right after the current contract expired, then tried to strong arm their union the same way it did the players’ association and TV networks in their negotiations. The NFL is so successful and so accustomed to dictating terms that finding out how far it can push fans, players, TV execs and, now, field officials appears to be an exercise for its own sake – especially since a new deal likely could be struck if each club kicked in an additional $6,000 each week of the regular season. That’s somewhere between $12 million and $18 million over the life of a contract expected to run between five and seven years.
Based on the available evidence, these replacements aren’t nearly as good as the crews that stepped in the last time, largely because the few top-notch college football officials who showed back then aren’t doing so now. That’s because they get steady work from their conferences and prospects of an NFL job are slim. According to the union, not one replacement who worked the 2001 lockout became an NFL field official. The current batch of replacement refs is being drawn from the Division II and III ranks and even lower, including at least one refugee from the Lingerie Football League.
It won’t take long for that to become apparent, starting with next week’s opener. One veteran estimated it takes three to five years to get used to the faster pace of play every time a ref moves up just one level in the college game. Some of the refs will be trying to jump two or more levels in a matter of months. The only similarities between those games and the ones they’ve called the last month will be the fields and the uniforms.
Exhibitions are about veterans trying to avoid injuries, rookies trying to land jobs and coaching staffs trying out trick plays somebody sketched on a cocktail napkin. Once everybody starts playing for keeps, jobs, reputations and lots of cash are on the line and tempers will be raised to full-scale alert. The games will be much faster and dirtier and as a result, more dangerous. They’re already way too long and bound to get a lot longer.
Sounds like somebody is set up for a fall.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com