What a difference a year makes.
This time last May, the NFL was hurtling towards what looked to be an impassable labor stoppage. It's easy now to forget how quickly mini-camps were swapped for circuit courts and how close Arena football came to becoming a desperate alternative for starved fans. A year later, it would seem all wounds have healed as the corporate NFL monolith has regained its momentum and is steamrolling to another heavily anticipated start.
Perhaps no better evidence can be offered than from a Thursday story that practically no one read.
In case you missed it, the NFL's Referees Association are pursuing a new labor contract with the league. As you may have guessed, negotiations have stalled and the league office announced that it is looking into hiring replacement officials for the 2012 season.
Trampled under the weight of April's draft, Bountygate and more troubling research about brain trauma, this story certainly wasn't dissected like a 2011 NFL courtroom saga. In most respects, the average NFL fan doesn't invest much thought into the lives of the league's referees – much less care about yet another intricate round of legal haggling.
Considering an NFL referee's relatively light 20-24 game schedule and traditional temporary status (most have full-time careers outside of football), the prospect of a prolonged labor fight would seem to instantly favor the league. While NFL referees are clearly skilled professionals – having to absorb and instantly enforce the league's massive rulebook while physically tracking world-class athletes – there are still part-time employees who border on being individual contractors.
At this point in the labor talks, it would appear the referees need the NFL more than the league needs them – at least if you listen to Ron Baynes, who has been tasked with recruiting referee replacements for the league.
When asked about the league's criteria for replacement officials, Baynes revealed he is looking for "lower-division college, professional league and semi-professional league officials whose window of opportunity for advancement has pretty much closed but who have the ability to work higher levels but just got overlooked."
Or in other words – anybody who has refereed anything – anytime – anywhere.
Not exactly the most inspirational of words for an NFL referee. Unlike a replacement player – such as those seen during the 1987 player strike and basically during the latter portions of NFL preseason games – replacement officials wouldn't dramatically affect the outcome of a game. The gap between an NFL referee and a potential replacement is not as distant as the one found between an NFL starter and an Arena League rookie. While that may be a simplistic comparison, most referees can handle the complexities of the game – at least once the basic physical demands are met.
However, in a league that is suddenly concerned with all things relating to safety, it would seem that using experienced NFL referees would be preferable to having to field several crews of replacements.
Of course this entire story could be nothing more than the league performing due diligence by creating a contingency plan – while flexing its Herculean muscles in the form of replacement referee leverage.
Otherwise, NFL referees are about to become an endangered species – joining a list of things deemed irrelevant by the league in recent years.
Or – why stop at referees? Perhaps the league could find replacements for these spare parts:
1. Kick Returners
Seriously, what's the point anymore? After moving the kickoff line up in some skewed attempt to limit violent player hits by increasing touchbacks, the NFL practically legislated away its most exciting play. In the process, kickoffs have become both as meaningless and predictable as an extra point. In the playoffs, kickoffs – and special teams in general – have been dismissed as some sub-genre of the game – instead of serving as a highly refined skill that rewards teams who boast well-rounded rosters. Yet, the league's Sisyphean task of reducing injuries in a game predicated on constant collisions will only lead to more rule changes and eventually the outright banning of kickoffs.
2. Throwing Over the Middle of the Field
While we're at it, why not make the middle of the field safer for wide receivers to roam? While most of the talk about helmet to helmet hits usually revolves around quarterbacks (or those who are hit by Pittsburgh's James Harrison), the most violent acts are committed by linebackers and safeties blasting receivers on 7-10 yard routes. In many cases, the fault for some truly ugly hits lies with the offensive play caller – who is inadvertently leading his receiver into danger. Of course, an erratic quarterback can also be cited here. Unless the game evolves back into a three yards and a cloud of dust era (highly unlikely given the league's current pass-friendly rules), look for Pro Bowl-esque rules coming to an NFL field near you.
After Jeff Saturday and Robert Kraft became the twin beacons of labor goodwill last season, I was reminded of what the NFL truly stands for – The National Federation of Lawyers. Or, only in the NFL could the Players' Association think they walked away with a long-term solution. In time, it will be revealed that the players were again fleeced by a small Army of lawyers representing the league's owners. The clauses pertaining to player safety alone will be continually challenged in the coming years – especially as more attention is paid to player safety.
This can only mean more lawyers, maybe more courtrooms – and a return to 2011.