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By Marc Farzetta
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The National Football League’s 2012 season is upon us. Michael Vick had a full offseason as a starter for the first time since he was in Atlanta, Peyton Manning is back in the league after a year’s absence and Tim Tebow is backing up Mark Sanchez in the country’s largest market. Yet with all this media fodder, the one universal topic is the officiating.
No matter what NFL city you are in, the one thing everyone can yell and scream about are the replacement refs.
Players and fans have been very vocal about how these replacements are taking away from the legitimacy of the game. After the Eagles beat the Ravens on Sunday, Raven’s Quarterback, Joe Flacco, said the replacement officials were “affecting the integrity of the game,” and he’s right.
Under commissioner Rodger Goodell, the NFL has been on a soap box yelling about 2 things; integrity and safety. “Integrity”, has been policed with suspensions to players like Adam “Pacman” Jones, Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick. “Safety,” has been policed with fines and more suspensions for illegal hits. Both of these objectives from the ‘Commish’ are now laughable because of the league’s choice to use replacement officials.
We have now watched six weeks of football (including the preseason) where the fill-in officials have made mistakes. They ruled a touchback on the 4 yard line, awarded a 4th time out and frequently slowed the pace of games by spotting the ball in the wrong place. The worst case scenario is what took place in Philadelphia and Atlanta in Week 2; late hits, pushing and shoving after the whistle while the fill-ins looked as if they were all in over their heads. Integrity? Safety? Neither seem to matter right now.
Monday night the replacements’ already tarnished reputation took another huge hit. While a guest of Ike Reese and Anthony Gargano on SportsRadio 94WIP, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy talked about how the officials were acting in the Eagles-Ravens game on Sunday. “During the game” the Pro-Bowl running back said, “The [officials] made a bad call or something and I’d see Ray Lewis puff his chest out and walk up to the ref and try to scare them and don’t you know [the official] started stuttering.” McCoy went on to say, “I’ll be honest with you, they’re like fans. One of the refs was talking about fantasy [football] like ‘McCoy, I need you for my fantasy [team]’.”
McCoy’s accusation of fandom comes on the heels of the NFL pulling replacement official Brian Stropolo, just hours before week 2’s Saints-Panthers game, because they learned he was a hardcore Saints fan. The craziest thing about this is the fact that the league regarded Stropolo as one of their best replacements, as they hand picked him to work the season opener on Wednesday September 5th between the Giants and the Cowboys. The crew for the opener was supposed to be an “All Star Team” of replacement refs selected by the NFL as their best individuals from the preseason.
By now it is widely known that the replacements are mostly D-II and D-III college officials trying to take advantage of a great opportunity. As the weeks roll on though we learn that some are High School level officials. Some are still working middle school games during the week and by the weekend officiating in an NFL stadium in front of 70,000 people.
So how did these officials get on the NFL’s radar? I spoke with two replacement referees that did not want to be named and here’s what they told me.
Every year, regardless of a labor dispute, the NFL sends scouts out to keep an eye on officials they think could make it in the NFL. The scouts then contact these “Prospective Officials” and if they look good, the League asks them if they would be interested in being an NFL Official. If so, they get placed on a list. Think of it as a low-level depth chart. It wasn’t specified as to how many names were on the list, but it seemed when the league couldn’t get a deal done with the regular officials, everyone on the list got a call.
All prospective replacements were then brought in to train for 1 week. The League observed the newbies as they officiated scrimmages by NFL teams (mostly practice squad guys). Some replacements were calling scrimmages for 5 hours at a time. After their week of training, they were sent to work the preseason.
Fans can debate who to blame more for the lawlessness of the season so far. The Replacements, the NFL or the regular officials for not taking the League up on their offer of a pay increase with no pension, but one thing is for certain. The real Referees are needed. They would not just be nice to have back. They are needed. If things continue as is, the substitute-teacher-refs will lose more control of the class room week after week. The NFL can no longer try to sell their players or their fan base on the idea that they are all about integrity and safety. Both those ideals are worthless when you don’t have the proper authority enforcing them at their core, where it all begins, on the field of play.
Marc Farzetta is a sports anchor and host for 94WIP, follow him on Twitter @marcfarzetta.