Unless TV calls, refs lockout will continue

Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, left, discusses a Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, left, discusses a play with referees Don King and Curtis Townsend in the first quarter of a game against the Miami Dolphins. (Sept. 9, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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Bumped up against the week's widespread outrage over football's replacement referees, warm remembrances of the great NFL myth-maker Steve Sabol, who died Tuesday, didn't stand a chance.

Temporarily, at least, reaction to the zebra lockout has thoroughly overwhelmed the league's preferred image of itself, so beautifully crafted in Sabol's lyrical, heroic NFL Films depictions.

Try putting NFL Films' stirring orchestral scores to scenes of everyone -- fans, commentators, coaches, players, gambling experts, labor law authorities -- piling on the NFL's decision to stick with substitute officials into the season's third weekend.

There are predictions of skewed game results. Panic over possible player injury. Even darker concerns."There certainly can be an impact on the [betting] line," said Northeastern University law professor Roger Abrams, who has written extensively on sports and labor law. A team that's particularly rough and tough, and doesn't mind beating up on the referee as well as the other team, may do better."

The replacements, bringing bald inexperience to do a job that is borderline undoable -- given the game's speed and violence -- are being berated for missing calls, not knowing the rules, caving in to player and coach intimidation.

One was outed as a New Orleans Saints fan before working a Saints' game. Another was cited for having officiated in the Lingerie Football League -- a Vegas-based creation played by women in their underwear.

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"No matter what business you're in," said Steve Zimmer, the Hauppauge attorney who is one of the veteran game-day officials locked out by the NFL since early June, "you can't teach experience.

"I've been in football since 1958, playing as a midget kid, playing through high school and as a college all-American, and working as a football official almost 20 years before I got to the NFL and, even then, there's still a learning curve. It takes a good three, four years for you to feel comfortable."

In a post for Slate.com, former NFL wide receiver Nate Jackson, among the multitudes convinced that the replacements are out of their depth, offered a veritable "how-to" in the art of surreptitious offensive holding and pass interference -- saying there was now "room for extracurriculars."

So, while NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is taking a good share of heat for not bringing back the trained and tested pros, there hardly is sympathy for the overmatched subs.

"Sympathy in what way?" Zimmer asked. "That they're taking food off people's tables?"

Abrams, who has arbitrated hundreds of salary disputes and is "a great believer in collective bargaining; I've seen it work," nevertheless worries that the potential for a lengthy labor standoff is significant.

Fans, despite their horrified reactions, are not going away, "so the only thing that will change the balance [against NFL leverage] is if they get a call from the TV networks," Abrams said. "But the ratings are fine.

"Management will wait until the referees buckle, and what really makes this interesting is that [the refs] are part-time employees. They all have real jobs [away from the sport]. So they can withstand this.

"It's like the [locked out] hockey players. Those that can will go play in Europe. 'You want to lock me out? Fine; I'll be in Moscow.'"

To 16th-year NFL referee Zimmer, the "65-to-70 hours a week" spent on his referee job, including film work, weekly conference calls and lengthy written tests, hardly qualifies as "part-time." And, just to add to the unique dynamic is what Abrams calls "the wild card in all this:

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"What is the NFL Players Association doing?" Abrams asked. "Their members' bodies are on the line and, last time I checked, they were staunch unionists."

Just last year, the players endured a four-month off-season lockout before reaching a 10-year collective bargaining agreement with management. Now, Abrams asked, "If the locked-out officials picket, will NFL players cross a picket line?"

Try turning all this into some uplifting NFL Films fable of righteous gladiators. Not only is Steve Sabol gone but, Abrams noted, "there's still a lockout."

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