Replacement refs: Officials of a different stripe

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 7, 2012 - 7:01 AM

Former NFL official Bernie Kukar fears the use of replacement officials for NFL games could prove damaging to the game.

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Replacement officials worked Sunday’s Hall of Fame exhibition game between the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans in Canton, Ohio, with few problems. However, former NFL official Bernie Kukar said he believes the speed of the game will lead to mistakes being made if replacements are used when the regular season begins.

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Bernie Kukar expects problems if replacement officials continue to call NFL games.

This shouldn't come as a surprise on a divisive issue. And how you feel about the current state of officiating in the most popular league in North America depends on what side of the issue you're on.

Kukar, a Minnesota native, was an NFL official for 22 seasons, starting in 1984. He worked hundreds of games, including two Super Bowls. And when he looks at the folks the league has assembled to call games during the lockout of officials? He sees trouble.

"They've never seen an NFL game up-close, on the field," Kukar said. "The difference will be significant. That much is guaranteed. I hope this gets resolved, because I think there will be some big problems."

The lockout began when talks between the league and the NFL Referees Association on a new contract hit a stalemate. It is the first such lockout since 2001, when two preseason weeks and the opening weekend were called by replacement officials.

The lockout of 121 officials began June 3. Major issues appear to be their pensions, which were first frozen, then eliminated; and salaries, which officials would like to be on par with other major sports. The NFL has proposed a seven-year deal, and says a fifth-year official who earned $115,000 last season would earn $183,000 in the final year of the proposed contract. Commissioner Roger Goodell said negotiations were "ongoing."

Because a number of collegiate conference supervisors -- including the Big Ten's -- are former NFL officials, most Division I officials are not allowed to be a part of a replacement crew. That means teams have been assembled primarily from officials from the Arena League, or from lower college divisions.

To Kukar, it's too big a leap to expect from the officials.

"The speed of the game will be a big difference for these guys," he said. "It's just a huge difference.''

Safety issues raised

Not surprisingly, the NFLRA agrees. In a conference call with reporters weeks ago, union president Scott Green said he thought using replacement officials would pose a health risk for the league at a time when the NFL has been beset by player safety issues.

"If calls aren't being made there will probably be additional things going on out on the field and that potentially could lead to a lot of player-safety issues," Green said.

The Los Angeles Times reported that nine well-known former officials had refused to help train the new officials.

The league is downplaying safety and competency issues. While visiting Green Bay Packers training camp last week, Goodell said the new officials would be prepared and that player safety was a key part of their training.

In an official statement, the NFL said, "We have made substantial investments in training despite the efforts of the NFLRA to denigrate the replacements and disrupt the training process."

In Sunday's Hall of Fame game, there were a few mistakes, but no huge issues. The opening coin toss was incorrectly announced. Referee Craig Ochoa announced a play was under review when it wasn't. There was a problem spotting the ball after a punt and a penalty.

On Thursday night Shannon Eastin will become the first female to officiate an NFL game. She will be a line judge in Green Bay's preseason game at San Diego.

Minnesotan Josh Thurow, a teacher and coach at Minnehaha Academy and an official for MIAC games, has been placed on a crew. Replacement officials are not allowed to talk with the media.

Players weigh in

It appears one group not riled up about the situation is the players, who are more concerned with preparing for the season.

"I must say, I hope we have the best guys, the best guys you can possibly have," center John Sullivan said. "We've had incredible officials. They've done a great job. But we also understand circumstances. And the NFL is a business. So I'm sure the NFL will do everything they can to put the best guys out there with us. As a player? We're not really focused on that."

Former player Ben Leber, who will be part of the broadcast team for the Vikings preseason games, said he thought the replacement officials would go out of their way to protect the players, particularly quarterbacks.

"I think quarterbacks will truly be off-limits," he said. "I think any ticky-tack [hit] will be called. So it could affect the outcome of the games.''

Will the new officials be able to handle the speed of the game? Will they struggle to control the battles along the line of scrimmage? Leber suggested fans watch the play there, anticipating players will look to take advantage of the situation.

"It could be an opportunity for guys to work on some things, like defensive linemen holding up offensive linemen," Leber said. "Using two-hand hold techniques, letting linebackers skate by without being touched. Things like that, tricks of the trade pros are great at."

And player safety?

"That's a tough question," Kukar said. "Because, as you know, the league is running scared right now with that concussion business. ... You can't help but feel it could lead to problems on the field. These guys won't be used to the speed these players will have."

Kukar said that speed could make it difficult to know which hits are legal and which are not.

"Let's put it this way," Kukar said. "If I was a player, I'd be a little concerned."

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