'OK, we got some out of a tavern'

Posted: Friday, August 31, 2001

Some lessons are tougher to remember than others. The last time the NFL was forced to call in understudies was 1987, when a players' strike stretched three games into the regular season. After a particularly inept performance by a Los Angeles Rams team packed with replacement players, reporters cornered then-coach John Robinson.

''It's not like we're getting them out of a tavern somewhere,'' he protested.

But then Robinson thought about it for a second. A deal had already been signed to bring his real team back in time for the fourth game. A sly smile creased his lips.

''OK,'' Robinson said, ''we got some out of a tavern.''

If the NFL had conducted a survey anytime in the last decade concerning which part of the game needed shoring up, officiating would have been the runaway winner. Fans whose teams wind up on the wrong side of a call already assume that official was recruited out of a tavern. Just wait until they see their replacements.

The NFL kicked off its final round of preseason games with a revolving cast of officials drawn from NFL Europe, Arena Football and the college ranks. The league is being purposely vague about the last group because several conferences were less than thrilled about allowing their on-field officials to work pro games.

On the players' side, at least, expectations aren't high.

Detroit defensive end Robert Porcher's logic was flawless when asked whether officials from NFL Europe and the Arena League are professionals.

''I don't see too many players from those leagues in the NFL,'' he said.

The NFL said it had no other choice after bargaining talks that had already stretched over the better part of a year broke off this week. The argument is over money, but at the core of the dispute is the more interesting spat: Whether NFL officials are full- or part-time employees.

''It's seasonal work, six months at best, no matter how you total it up,'' league spokesman Greg Aiello said a few hours before kickoff. ''That's the way it's worked for 82 years.''

The league's latest five-year proposal reflects that thinking. It offers the 119 officials a 40 percent raise next year, double the salary in year two and then a series of single-digit bumps. The NFL calculates that by the end of the deal, they will be among the top 5 percent of wage earners in America -- but still below what their counterparts in the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball make.

Veteran player-agent Tom Condon, who represents the officials, originally asked for parity with the other leagues -- and offered to switch the work force to full-time officials.

The union's executive board surveyed members and determined they were already averaging 40-hour work weeks -- if the time they put in during the six months they're on call was spread out over the course of a year.

''Our officials do a great job and we have all the respect in the world for them,'' Aiello said. ''But some of them watch 'Monday Night Football' and count that. Some probably go to sleep at night reading the rulebook instead of a novel and count that.

''Besides,'' he added, ''if we move to full-time jobs, we'd lose a lot of our veteran officials. Most of them already have careers they're not willing to sacrifice.''

Condon agrees some number of veterans would leave, but for different reasons,

''The guys who would leave are the ones who already find their work for the NFL is bleeding into their other job and hurting their chances to make progress,'' he said.

''We suggested this was the time to make the officials full time, but commissioner (Paul) Tagliabue made it clear that wasn't an option. So we came back and asked for 60 percent of what officials in the other major sports were getting. That's where we left it.''

Frankly, it's too confusing to crunch the numbers and figure out the difference between the NFL's last proposal and the union's.

The league throws around what the most senior officials would be making by the end of the five years; the union likes to focus on how far first-year NFL officials lag behind their counterparts in the other pro sports. What's clear is that the two sides aren't all that far apart.

By coincidence, a deal that would extend the league's collective bargaining agreement with its players until 2007 is completed and awaiting only signatures from both sides.

Asked whether this was a particularly important time for the NFL to be viewed as holding the line on costs, Aiello said: ''Any concerns the owners have about a ripple effect extends beyond the players.''

Those same owners should have concerns about the fans, too. Attendance won't fall off the way it did when the players walked out 14 years ago, but the number of complaints could skyrocket.

Messing with a successful product is always a risk. Just ask the genius who came up with New Coke.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

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