Job Descriptions of NFL's Referees at Core of Dispute

By Fisher, Eric | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 26, 2001 | Go to article overview

Job Descriptions of NFL's Referees at Core of Dispute


Fisher, Eric, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Eric Fisher

Full time or part time?

For all the saber rattling, rhetoric and endless proposed contract numbers surrounding the nasty labor dispute between the NFL and its game officials, the debate boils down to that one question: Is being an NFL game official a full-time occupation or not?

Considering the NFL is now in its ninth decade, one might think it's a simple query resolved long ago. But as the NFL has become an international force through multi-billion-dollar TV contracts, sold-out stadiums and the best merchandising in all of sports, the question remains open. And the NFL Referees Association says it hasn't appropriately shared in the mammoth economic growth.

"Capital availability is not at issue," said Tom Condon, chief negotiator for the NFLRA, in a USA Today guest editorial. "Capital allocation is."

The stakes are serious. The NFL is offering an immediate raise of 40 percent and 100 percent jumps in pay by 2003. Base salaries currently range from $21,000 for first-year crew members to $69,000 for senior officials.

The union wants a 400 percent increase, creating a massive gulf between the two sides. With a lockout possibly on the way, the NFL is beginning to hire replacement officials from the Arena Football League, NFL Europe and college ranks, and they could start as soon as this week's final preseason games.

The replacements raise even more issues because arguably no other sport is more subjected to the negative consequences of an arbitrary or blown call. The game is so fast and so violent that even experienced NFL officials privately concede that keeping up with every potential hold, pass interference or sideline play is more difficult than ever.

Instant replay helps and is widely seen as a necessity. But games need to be controlled first and foremost on the field, not in a replay booth. With replacements, there is a risk that the game won't be controlled as effectively. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue admitted as much in a letter sent to each official last week. "We have repeatedly expressed to your negotiators our recognition that you and the other game officials perform a difficult task with great skill and professionalism," Tagliabue wrote. "We have no desire to disrupt your continued work with the NFL, or to have a prolonged labor dispute with your union."

To truly solve the issue, however, it is necessary to identify once and for all the full nature of the job.

Each of the league's 119 officials works four preseason and 15 regular-season games per year. Those judged to be the best are invited to work through the postseason. The officials are "on the job" for those three hours per game. But, as for players, the games require preparation like conditioning, film review, study of evolving NFL rules, and travel.

But exactly how much work is involved? That's where the league and union differ greatly.

Officials must be in the game city 24 hours before kickoff and complete a short written rules test weekly. Referees, as leaders of their crews, also must file weekly game reports and confer following games with league officials. …

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