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August 27, 2012
With referees locked out, inexperienced and unstudied replacements have turned the NFL preseason into a comedy of errors. But will anyone be laughing when the games start to count?
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August 27, 2012

Black And White, And Green All Over

With referees locked out, inexperienced and unstudied replacements have turned the NFL preseason into a comedy of errors. But will anyone be laughing when the games start to count?

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Ed Hochuli suffers from what he calls the sickness. In a typical year, around mid-May, the NFL heralds its upcoming season by mailing to game officials an arcane, hundred-question rules test, including such queries as: On an onside kick from the A35, A1 is the first to touch the kick at the A42, and A2 then recovers the kick at the A46. During the kick, B1 blocks A3 below the waist at the A44. What's the call and why?

But this year, well before the NFL Referees Association's collective bargaining agreement was set to expire on May 31, the zebras learned that no exam would be forthcoming. And so Hochuli, the NFLRA's famously mesomorphic elder statesman, preempted his union's impending—and now ongoing—lockout in the nerdiest way imaginable. For three months now, the 22-year veteran has been e-mailing his 120 fellow officials his own weekly test, replete with video clips.

What's more, on each of the past eight Mondays, always at 9:30 p.m. EDT, the 61-year-old has moderated a voluntary hour-long conference call in which participants dissect the test's thorniest questions. On Aug. 13, for example, 95 officials devoted 30 minutes to discussing the fouls that require a 10-second clock runoff.

"The sickness," says Hochuli, proudly, "is that some of us actually enjoy these things."

Which helps illuminate the larger nausea plaguing his cohort in the midst of the second-biggest labor dispute that the NFL has endured in as many seasons. At bottom is the locked-out officials' feeling of disrespect, wrapped up in pay (in 2011, the average salary for NFL officials was $149,000, lowest of the four major American sports) and pension issues, echoing the protests of the league's players amid their own lockout a year ago. As before, the terms of this debate are in public dispute. To review:

1. The NFL is proposing compensation increases of 5% to 11% per year over a proposed seven-year term for each official. The NFLRA, which sets its own pay scale but relies on the league to provide the aggregate pie to slice (last year it was $11.93 million), wants an aggregate increase of $2.2 million in 2012, and a $16.5 million boost over five years.

2. The NFL wants to transition officials, whom it deems part-time workers, from their "defined benefit" retirement plans to "defined contribution" 401(k) programs. The NFLRA wants to preserve the existing plan, shielding pensions from the stock market, but is willing to settle on grandfathering in current officials.

3. The NFL proposes hiring three additional crews (21 new officials) and introducing full-time referees, which it says will improve officiating. The NFLRA calls this an "attempt to divert attention" from the two previous issues. The union is not opposed to the notion of more crews and full-time officials, it says—if the two sides can agree on compensation.

Both sides met for federal mediation three times in July, followed by a short meeting earlier this month. As Scott Green, the NFLRA president and an official himself, sums it up, "We didn't make any progress." Asked for an educated guess on when this all might be resolved, another official speculated, "Two or three weeks into the season—but I have never seen our union so tight as they are now." (NFL execs said last week that they were prepared to open the season with replacements.)

In the meantime America's preferred on-field product is stalling. During the last referee lockout, which lasted two weeks in 2001, including the opening games of the regular season, replacements generally consisted of high-level college officials. Not the cream of the crop—those are the NFL-identified and formally scouted "finalists" who sit on a waiting list for league duty. But those '01 replacement refs at least could claim they were close.

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