Through the current lockout of its game officials, the NFL has been emphatic all along that its replacement officials have passed all appropriate background checks. One would assume that the fill-in crews go through the same checks that the regular, locked-out refs do, but in at least one case, the NFL really dropped the ball. Brian Stropolo, a side judge assigned to work Sunday's game between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, was pulled from the crew after it was discovered that his Facebook page shows him to be a hardcore Saints fan.
Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, told Stacey Dales of the NFL Network that while there was nothing "essentially improper" about Stropolo's specific allegiance, he was removed from the game as a "safe and appropriate measure" to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, Stropolo "proudly displays his Saints colors on his Facebook page," and the evidence is pretty clear. There's a waterfront shot in which Stropolo is wearing a Saints hat and windbreaker, and another where he's wearing a Saints hat in a shot with three other people. There's still another shot in which Stropolo is seen tailgating at the Superdome before a preseason game -- fortunately, we suppose, he wasn't working that one.
Mortensen reported that Stropolo actually traveled to the game with the rest of the officiating crew and was on the field for warmups when he was pulled from the game by an NFL representative.
Stropolo, who worked the 2012 season opener between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, interacted with some Saints fans on his page after that first game. "Thanks to everyone for all the support," he wrote. "The crew did a great job tonight. Next stop September 16 at Carolina vs. the Saints."
One of Stropolo's Facebook friends replied, "Hey, now be nice with those yellow flags for our Saints!!"
"That's awesome you get to be an official for a Saints game!" another of Stopolo's Facebook freinds said. "I didn't think they would let you since your [sic] from Louisiana."
This is yet another embarrassment for the league in the ongoing battle with the NFLRA, and one can only imagine what the ramifications might have been had ESPN not notified the NFL of Stropolo's clear and obvious rooting interests. The NFL dodged a major bullet in the fight against the appearance of impropriety in this case, but if this is its actual vetting process, you can bet we'll hear of more shenanigans.
As ESPN's Tom Jackson pointed out on Sunday morning, none of the replacement officials were working Sundays before, and they all love football. So, it would stand to reason that they're all going to be NFL fans to some degree. That Stropolo did not disclose his specific rooting interest was bad enough, but that he made it this public is a clear blight on the NFL's consistent claims that the integrity of the league was above reproach.
"I'm going to look at worst-case scenario, and it's not an isolated incident," Jackson said on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown."
"I think all of this puts in question the integrity of the league. Let's get the regular referees back doing the job they should be doing."
Now, if every blown call (and there will be many this Sunday and Monday) is associated with the possibility that some official is wearing a replica jersey under his stripes ... well, it's one more reason that the sooner this labor impasse is over, the better off everyone will be.
As usual, ESPN's Mike Ditka put it very succinctly: "Commissioner Goodell has his first headache, and this is a big headache. It's time to get the real guys back to work."
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