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NFL Thins Ranks of Officials

Eight are fired with more terminations expected. League says such decisions are based on performance, not physical fitness.

March 13, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

The NFL's decision to terminate eight of its officials could be followed by another round of firings, an officiating source said Wednesday, adding that the league is unwisely placing more importance on youth and fitness than experience.

"You cannot replace experience," said the source, who is forbidden by the league from speaking publicly about personnel matters. "It takes five or six years for our guys to get a solid grasp of all the rules and judgments. Now, a year after the league put in 16 new officials, it's going to add in at least 11 more new ones, and I wouldn't be surprised if that number became 15."

According to the source, three NFL officials -- Sanford Rivers, Steve Wilson and Jim Quirk -- are in danger of joining the ousted eight because the league is dissatisfied with their physical condition.

The source -- who said Mike Pereira, the league's director of officiating, "wants flat bellies even though everybody is not built the same" -- revealed those three have until the league's officiating clinic in July to meet an NFL standard for "body mass index" or risk losing their jobs. Body mass index calculates an individual's fat percentage.

Rivers, 59, Wilson, 47, and Quirk, 62, each of whom weighs more than 230 pounds, were ordered to a physical therapy business in Utah less than two weeks ago, where they were placed in a pool of water and their body mass index was measured.

"There's a set standard they have to meet by July or they're out," the source said. "If your BMI is in the high 20s, you're classified as obese, and the league certainly doesn't want anyone in this classification working the games. These guys coming back from that fat farm are in trouble."

Rivers is seen as most vulnerable. He was suspended for physical condition reasons last season.

Pereira was traveling Wednesday and not immediately available for comment, but NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the notion that officials can be removed strictly because of their weight is "completely ridiculous."

Mike Arnold, a labor lawyer representing the NFL Referees Assn., told the New York Times the eight other officials have been told they need to either resign by March 20 or they will be fired. All eight are older than 50, and six of those being removed have spent at least 10 seasons in the league. Contacted at his office Wednesday, Arnold refused to elaborate.

Veterans of the NFL officiating business say the league's handling of personnel issues has never been so public. Most officials, who work in a part-time capacity for the NFL, have full-time careers. In the past, the league has thus spared them embarrassment by labeling partings as resignations.

After a season of high-profile mistakes, however, some officials contend the league wants the public to see its heavy hand in this matter.

Ron Spitler and Tom Johnson have been officials for 21 years and Dave Anderson has worked 19 NFL seasons. The other ousted officials are Tommy Moore (11 years), Jim Duke (10 years), Lloyd McPeters (10 years), Bill Spyksma (eight years) and Dave Warden (five years).

Referees Dick Hantak and Bob McElwee and umpire Bob Wagner retired after last season.

Aiello would not confirm the discipline, acknowledging only that turnover is common among the league's 119 officials and that those not invited to return are removed on "performance-related" grounds.

The officials' source confirmed the eight men out were told their poor ratings by NFL graders led to the decision. None of the eight worked any playoff games -- which are awarded to the highest-rated officials -- nor had they ever participated in a Super Bowl.

Duke, Johnson and Spitler were part of the crew that worked a Dec. 8 Minnesota-Green Bay game that ended with a bad call. Minnesota receiver Chris Walsh took a knee in the game's closing seconds but was hit hard by Green Bay's Antuan Edwards, precipitating a postgame brawl that resulted in six fines. Jim Daopoulos, the league's supervisor of officials, announced a day after the game that officials erred by not blowing a whistle, stopping play, when Walsh took the knee.

None of the eight removed officials worked the league's most controversial game of the season, the New York Giants' wild-card playoff loss at San Francisco. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue labeled that game, which ended with a key noncall on a blatant pass interference penalty, as the low point of his tenure.

"The league is making a knee-jerk reaction to some bad calls, but I think it will end up hurting them more in the short term because of all this inexperience," the officials' source said.

Some of the eight officials are expected to file a grievance, although the officials' source said, "You know who settles grievances? Tagliabue. Does that [stink]? The NFL has made it known that if guys had a part in a major screw-up, causing embarrassment to the league, they are to be rid of. 'Go ahead and sue us,' is their thing, 'we have more money than you do.' "

The officials are irked that the league did not provide fair warning to most of the eight officials.

The exception was Duke, who was told before the season that it would be his last.

Typically, the officials' source said, those in danger of losing their jobs receive a letter before the season informing them they have a streak of nonplayoff seasons. Or, eight weeks into the season, they would receive a letter telling them that their grades are not good enough to merit a playoff position for that season.

"They didn't send those letters this year," the source said. "The general rule has always been nobody would be terminated for a bad year. Not one of these guys, except Duke, had a premonition this was coming."

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