Since the NFL's new Collective Bargaining Agreement ostensibly rang in a decade of labor peace, the league and the players' association have found all sorts of things on which to disagree. The two sides have been trading punches on the subject of the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal for months, and now they have a new subject for disagreement -- the level of officiating on the field following the NFL's decision to lock its refs out of the game until the NFL Referees' Association can come to terms on their own new CBA.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello has been the most public face on the league's side, coming out after every debacle-filled series of games and insisting that everything is just dandy with the temporary zebras. This he did again on Monday, during a Monday appearance on Tampa Bay radio station 98.7 The Fan.
"It's game to game, just like it is with every team with the officials every year," Aiello said, echoing what he says every week, no matter the circumstances. "[Thursday] night [Panthers vs. Giants] they did very well, and officiating wasn't an issue. We hope that will continue. We are working very hard every week to correct mistakes and get their performance to the highest level possible. We understand some people are frustrated, but we are in a serious dispute with our regular officials and we'd like to get that resolved, but they could come back to work at any time if they would reach an agreement."
[Michael Silver: NFL needs to end its dispute and bring the real officials back]
Meanwhile, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith has repeatedly asserted that the NFL violated the spirit of its agreement with the players by deciding to go with an inferior officiating product without the concerns of the players or their union.
"We're not looking to interfere or become involved with the negotiations between the referees and the National Football League, but what a lot of people miss — and certainly what a lot of commentators appear to miss — is the decision to pull the real referees off the field is just a unilateral one by these NFL owners," Smith told Washington D.C.'s ESPN 980. "The fact that they could have left [the real officials] on the field while they worked out their contract situation — that's an easy call if you really care about the health and safety of the players on the field."
But as Smith knows, lockouts speak louder than words. And the issue of player safety is one that has come up a lot. If NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell cares as much about player safety as he says, how on earth can he forward and endorse a plan by which the best on-field caretakers are eliminated from the process?
Smith has asked, and continues to ask, the same questions.
"How can you come to a conclusion, in a new era of health and safety, to make a decision to pull the real referees off the field? And my guess is — in the direct telephone conversations between general managers and owners to the league office — my guess is that more general managers and more owners are upset about the situation than they let on. It's time for the league office to come to the conclusion that this was just a really stupid idea, and certainly inconsistent with a true obligation to health and safety."
Aiello, as would be his wont, sees things very differently.
"I think [in] many of the games the replacement officials are doing a good job. They are making good calls. They are throwing flags on the safety rules. We don't buy that player safety has been compromised. There's going to be a focus this week on game control and controlling the players ... We don't want things getting out of hand. We don't want fights or brawls. We've had that kind of thing in the past with the regular officials. We don't want it ever, so we are going to keep at it."
What Aiello's talking about is not an increased emphasis on player safety, but rather an increased focus on coaches and players, and how they interact with the replacement officials. At this point, decorum seems more important than game management.
"You and I — even me as a casual fan of the game — can see first-hand just how slow, choppy, uneven this game is," Smith said of the frequent delays in games, allowing replacement refs to take the time they need to figure out the rules. "Sometimes it's like looking at video under the old dial-up."
Smith had better get used to those extra delays. Sunday meetings between the league and the NFLRA did not prove to be very fruitful, and the NFL seems perfectly willing to -- at least in some minds -- compromise their product in the name of a few dollars.
Aiello tried to break it down in a palatable and NFL-friendly wa, when asked about the perception that the league is haggling.
"It's much more than hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's multi-millions. It's more like a $70 million difference and you have to be smart about the way you run a business. It is a business. There's a lot of expenses in running the operation starting with the players, who get the most money, and they should, and then you got coaches and you got everything else and then we have game officials, so we have great respect for them. We want them to be fairly compensated. We think they are for the amount of work they do.
"They have just been unwilling to be reasonable about it in our way, so right now we are stuck in this dispute."
And NFL fans, preferring a watered-down NFL to no NFL at all, are stuck in the middle. No matter the dispute, that's the way it always seems to go.
(H/T: Sports Radio Interviews)
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