NFL Starts Regular Season Without Its Regular Refs

The NFL starts its regular season tonight with replacement referees. A labor dispute has sidelined the regular refs. Some players and fans say the game is suffering.

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The NFL regular season opens tonight with the Dallas Cowboys taking on the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. It is a real rivalry, a game that counts in the real standings, but it will not have real refs - at least not members of the NFL's Referee's Union, who have been locked out by the league. The referees want their pay to increase from an average salary of about $150,000 a year. They also want a real pension, while the NFL wants to move to a 401K plan. With negotiations ongoing, officials of a different stripe will take the field, as NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Keystone cops, it's one of those references everyone gets even if a tiny portion of the population actually remembers seeing the black and white film shorts from a century ago. We may not have yearned for a newer phrase to denote a wrong way group of uniformed bumblers, but one has been thrust upon us. An alliterative phrase to boot - replacement refs.

DON KING: We have fouls by both teams during the kicking team. The other ref is yelling both on the kicking team.

PESCA: That was a referee with the unfortunate name of Don King, struggling to explain a ruling in a preseason game between the Giants and Patriots. At least he - oh, wait, he's not done.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Correction on the reporting of the foul. Both teams were on the, both, both fouls were on the kicking team.

PESCA: Okay. So one referee wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The first, the first down change were not set prior to the snap, so we shut the play down prior to the snap itself.

PESCA: Okay, so two referee wrongs don't make...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The play stands as called. First and 10, Arizona, first and 10, Atlanta.

PESCA: Arizona wasn't even playing in that game. And this game...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Philadelphia will be charged their first team time out.

PESCA: Did not involve a team from Philadelphia. So lots of blunders, including the time the replacement refs put two balls on the field to begin play. Anyway, these referees, they're just zebras with a dream. The shame is not theirs alone, says Ben Austro, who's been covering the referee lockout for the National Football Post. But they are partly to blame.

BEN AUSTRO: Some of it is their own choice because they were asked if they wanted to officiate in the NFL despite the fact that they had not the qualifications to do that.

PESCA: Austro, who normally blogs at footballzebras.com, has found the replacement referees to be at times overmatched and slower to make decisions than the regular referees. These are not the second or third best collections of referees in America. Top-tier college referees have declined to take the Sunday gigs, so the games are being officiated by refs whose experience is in NCAA division two or three, high school, and in one notorious case, the Lingerie Football League. Their on-field performance will have a big impact on the NFL's negotiation with its real refs, says the director of the Tulane Sports Law program, Gabe Feldman.

GABE FELDMAN: The league has all the leverage. There will be complaints. There's no question there will be complaints and the replacement refs will be mocked and some of the players might start talking and the fans will start talking. But I think the league is certainly willing to weather that storm.

PESCA: Feldman says this negotiation is a chance for the NFL to be tough, and to show its resolve for the next time when the players' contracts come up. In terms of dollars, it has been pointed out that to the hugely profitable NFL, the referees' contract and pension demands are but the proverbial rounding error. ESPN business analyst and former Green Bay Packer executive, Andrew Brandt, agrees but also reminds us that your average billionaire owner didn't get that way through a benevolent negotiating posture.

ANDREW BRANDT: The NFL owners don't need the players or the refs to make less money. They simple want the players and the refs to make less money.

PESCA: Brandt does predict that this dispute will be settled soon. He thinks the refs want to take home a paycheck more than they want to make a point. But until then, enjoy your season opener as the Cowboys face the Super Bowl champion New England Giants. Correction: the New York Giants. The ruling on the field stands. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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