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League Puts On Game Face

Pro football: NFL hires 120 replacement officials after contract talks stall. Rules seminar today, debuts set for Thursday.

August 29, 2001|SAM FARMER | LOS ANGELES TIMES

Facing the first work stoppage by its game officials, the NFL hired replacement crews Tuesday to work this week's exhibition finales and possibly into the regular season. Asked how that will affect events on the field, former NFL referee Jim Tunney answered with a question:

"You know how to spell ugly?"

The league is more optimistic about the lockout, however, and has 120 replacement officials in place from college football, the Arena League and NFL Europe. League supervisory officials, all former field officials, also will be available.

The crews will debut Thursday in six exhibition games. Today, they will attend a rules seminar.

"Replacement officials have been used in all other sports, and now it's our turn," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "The games will go on."

Talks between the league and the NFL Referees Assn. broke off Tuesday in Dallas. The officials have been without a contract since March and are seeking better salaries, benefits and pension plans. Their salary proposals were significantly higher than the NFL's offer, which doubles most current salaries by 2003.

"We have a duty to our fans and teams, and we cannot go into the regular season with the threat of a sudden work stoppage by our game officials," NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said after a two-hour meeting with Tom Condon, the agent representing the officials. "Despite our efforts, we remain far apart. And the officials' negotiators have repeatedly refused to consider a no-strike, no-lockout agreement with the NFL covering the 2001 season."

Although initial reports indicated instant-replay crews would walk out if replacement officials were used, that is not the case. The replay crews, who are employed by the league, will be in place.

In accepting their new roles, replacements must negotiate a political minefield. At least five NCAA conferences feature "assigners"--those people in charge of putting crews in place--who double as NFL officials.

The tension reached a boil last week when Ed Hochuli, one of the league's top referees and the president of the union, sent an e-mail to 1,200 potential replacement officials warning "don't go down as one of the scabs who stabbed the NFL guys in the back."

The e-mail, first disclosed by the Washington Post, continued: "What may sound like a fun diversion, a fun couple of games for you, is my career ....Working as a scab will actually hurt and likely kill any chances you would have of ever getting into the NFL."

Several people who received the e-mail contacted the NFL and said they were offended by the tone of the message.

Aiello disagreed strongly when asked if becoming a replacement was tantamount to career suicide.

"Career suicide? No. It might be a career boost," he said.

But Tunney said the speed of the NFL will be too much for most replacements to handle.

"I've said for years it takes a good college official three to five years until they really get the feel of it," he said. "The rules are different, the speed is incredible. They'll never see anything like this in their lives."

An NFL receiver needs to have two feet inbounds for a legal catch; a college receiver can get by with one foot inbounds. An NFL offense has 40 seconds between plays; a college offense has 25. There are 68 such rules differences.

"It's just a different game," said Dean Crowley, a longtime Division I referee and former chairman of the National Assn. of Sports Officials. "There are going to be mistakes made. I don't understand how they can put someone out on the NFL field with one day of training." The officials, who work part time, are seeking parity with baseball, NBA and NHL officials, who are full-time employees. That could increase their salary by 400%.

Under the NFL's offer, an official entering his fifth season who made $42,295 last year for regular-season and exhibition games, plus various meetings and clinics, would make $62,103 in 2001. In 2003, he would earn $84,470.

An official entering his 10th season who made $64,215 last year would be paid $95,000 this season and $128,400 in 2003.

At the top of the scale, an official entering his 21st season who made $82,390 last year would earn $120,998 this season. He would get $139,555 in 2003.

Oakland Raider defensive end Trace Armstrong, president of the NFL Players Assn., said the prospect of replacement officials troubles him.

"I'm sure the people they get are going to try and do a good job, but this is the NFL," he said. "It's a completely different game from college and arena football."

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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