As NFL Labor Dispute Drags On, Fill-In Refs Criticized

The NFL locked out the regular officials in June because of a labor dispute. While the league and the referees union continue to disagree over a new contract, the replacements on the field are making mistakes.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And now to the NFL, where these days, it's tough to say where the harder hitting is happening right now; on the field, or off - where players, coaches and the media blasted this past weekend's performance by replacement officials. The regular officials were locked out by the league in June because of a labor dispute. Joining us is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Good morning.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, remind us - quickly - why we have these lower-tier college and semi-professional officials, working at the highest level of the game?

GOLDMAN: Well, because the regular guys are fighting with the NFL over pay and pension benefits. Pensions appear to be the major sticking point. The NFL wants to make changes that officials say would reduce those benefits. And the officials object to making substantial concessions when the profits are up.

MONTAGNE: Well, the season opened a couple of weeks ago, and the replacements didn't do so badly. But this past weekend, not so good. Why don't you remind us of the damage?

GOLDMAN: All right. It runs the gamut. Penalties were called when there wasn't an infraction, no calls when there should've been one; the officials placed the ball on the wrong yard line after one play finished; they let the clock run after an incomplete pass, which is a no-no.

"Monday Night Football," with its national TV audience, was especially problematic. The announcers talked about the choppy flow of the game, and the extra time it took as officials tried to figure out calls. And officials also just barely controlled what appeared to be a brewing brawl between the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos. Now, one voice rose above the others, however, and it was because it was so blunt. It was Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, who's a commentator on ESPN. Here he is, after Monday night's game.

STEVE YOUNG: Everything about the NFL, now - it's inelastic for demand. There's nothing that they can do, to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is, they don't care. Player safety doesn't matter, in this case because in the end, you're still going to watch the game. We're all going to complain and moan and gripe, and say it's - all these problems. All the coaches will say it; the players will say it. Doesn't matter - let them eat cake.

GOLDMAN: Now, Young is a smart guy. He has a law degree and apparently, knows his French history. And his cynical take on the matter, Renee, is catching on with other critics of the NFL, even if they don't get the cake reference.

MONTAGNE: And what has been the NFL's reaction to all this?

GOLDMAN: A league spokesman - Greg Aiello - responding to Steve Young, told me in an email: Of course, we care; that's what we're working hard with the current officials - he says.

But as far as the criticism, it doesn't appear to be motivating the NFL, or the regular officials, to get the talks going. According to an internal official's memo, their last face-to-face meeting was September 1st. The NFL reportedly has drawn up a five-week schedule for using replacements, if the lockout keeps going.

MONTAGNE: Well, finally, amidst all this controversy, everyone took a moment to pause yesterday and honor NFL filmmaker Steve Sabol. He died of brain cancer. He was 69. Why don't you speak to us, for a few moments, about him?

GOLDMAN: Sabol and his dad, Ed, played a huge role in helping increase the popularity of the league, from the 1960s on, and really mythologizing pro football in this country with their beloved NFL films - with the fantastic camera work, the super-slow motion of footballs spiraling through the air, the great music that all NFL fans can hum, the writing, the god-like voice of the late John Fessenden narrating the films. All created by Steve and Ed Sabol.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CLASSIC BATTLE")

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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