Players question NFL's call on stand-in referees


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National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell asks the players to protect the shield -- the NFL symbol that is prominently displayed on its television broadcasts and its marketing material. The players are expected to conduct themselves in a manner on and off the field that will not embarrass the league.

Mr. Goodell has taken steps in recent years to fine and suspend players for unnecessary roughness penalties and shots to the head as well as misconduct off the field. The players have swallowed the punishments, but they are beginning to wonder aloud if Mr. Goodell and the owners who pay him are doing their part to protect the shield.

Players from across the league, including the Steelers, believe the integrity of the game is at stake following three weeks of replacement official follies that are enough to fill up the NFL Films library for years to come.

It had been building the first two weeks of the season, but some high-profile mistakes in nationally televised games Sunday and Monday nights brought the league's contract dispute with the NFL referee association to a head.

"There's been a standard for the NFL," Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon said. "We all know they expect excellence on the field from us and we're taught to conduct ourselves and be professionals. On the flip side, we expect to have top-notch refs and guys who are about keeping the upkeep of the game. If there's a drop-off in that, it affects everyone. Hopefully, they get this solved and we get back to playing football like we can."

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It's not just current players who are upset with the use of replacement officials. Former players such as Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who now works as a color analyst for Fox, tweeted early Tuesday morning, "These games are a joke."

Even the president of the United States, Barack Obama, chimed in via Twitter; "NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs' lockout is settled soon. --bo"

One of the most controversial endings in NFL history took place Monday night in a game between Green Bay and Seattle. At least two mistakes by the replacement officials on the final, game-deciding play gave the Seahawks a 14-12 victory.

The first mistake was the officials missing an offensive pass interference penalty on Seattle receiver Golden Tate, who pushed Green Bay's Sam Shields out of the way.

The second mistake was by the referee for not huddling with the officials in the end zone who made different rulings on the play. One official signaled a touchback, meaning he believed Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings intercepted the ball. Another official signaled touchdown.

The NFL conceded Tuesday the missed pass interference penalty cost Green Bay the game.

Players and coaches are not the only ones who have been affected by the mistakes of replacement officials. Gamblers who bet on the Packers lost big. The Packers were a three-point favorite and would have covered the point spread if the touchdown was disallowed.

Online sportsbook, SportsBettingOnline.ag, is granting all of its members a weekly Replacement Refs Mulligan, which can be used to refund any bet that lost because of a controversial call.

"While we're an online sportsbook, we're sports fans first. And this NFL season is unbelievably painful to watch, mainly because of the incompetence of replacement refs," Dave Johnson, head odds maker at SportsBettingOnline.ag, said in a statement emailed to reporters. "We feel for sports bettors, so we're giving every one of our members a Replacement Ref Mulligan that they can use once a week."

The botched call was a popular subject among the Steelers after they finished practice Tuesday.

"I watched it," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Crazy game, crazy ending, glad I wasn't a part of it."

Mr. Roethlisberger echoed the sentiments of a lot of the players. He said it's difficult to blame the replacement officials because they are not trained to perform at the NFL level. Many of them were plucked from the small college and high school ranks.

"Part of you feels bad for the guys," Mr. Roethlisberger said. "They're not used to this. It's tough. Even the regular officials make mistakes because everyone is human. They're getting extra-criticized.

"Someone made a good point this morning. I don't know if we should be blaming the refs as much as the league, Goodell, the owners. Maybe it's not the officials. We're putting them in tough situations, and it can't be easy."

Safety Ryan Clark had a similar outlook.

"When you put people in positions who are not used to it, who haven't been trained to handle these types of games, these types of athletes, you're going to have mistakes," he said. "If the [NFL] is willing to take that chance with the game, all we can do is play."

Mr. Clark is the Steelers' player representative with the NFL Players Association. He said the NFLPA's stance concerning the replacement officials is centered on player safety.

As long as player safety is not being jeopardized, he said the players union won't have much to say about the contract dispute between the league and officials.

"The biggest thing for us is player safety," Mr. Clark said. "As long as the referees are not putting our players at risk, as long as they're calling the game the way it should be from a physical standpoint, that's what we're concerned about.

"If player safety is paramount to the NFL and if we feel like the replacement refs put that in jeopardy, that's what we're looking for. As far as the refs controlling wins and losses, that's on the NFL. The NFL talks about the integrity of the game. If they feel like the replacement refs are still holding the integrity of the game intact, then what can you do?"

Later Tuesday, however, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith issued a statement to players expressing concern for them.

"The decision to lock out the referees jeopardizes your health and safety," the statement said in part.

The Steelers also have felt the impact of the replacement officials. In the season opener at Denver, linebacker Larry Foote did not believe Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme completed a catch in the end zone, a touchdown that gave the Broncos a 22-19 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Mr. Foote also was incensed with officials after the Oakland game, apparently because he thought Ziggy Hood was injured with an illegal chop block, he ran off the field as soon as the game ended and confronted the officials. Jory Rand of KDKA-TV reported Mr. Foote told the replacement officials "You should go kill yourselves."

Mr. Foote left the locker room before reporters were allowed in Sunday and he was not available to reporters Tuesday.

In the Week 2 victory against the Jets, cornerback Ike Taylor twice was flagged for highly questionable pass interference penalties, including one when he failed to lay a hand on the receiver.

In the loss at Oakland over the weekend, officials twice failed to identify Steelers who were flagged for penalties.

Two penalties -- holding and an illegal block in the back -- were called on an Antonio Brown punt return for a touchdown, but the referee failed to identify which players were penalized.

Mr. Goodell and negotiators for the NFLRA met again Tuesday, but there are still some major sticking points holding up a deal, including the use of backups crews that would replace underperforming officials and the pension fund.

The NFLRA sent a memo Tuesday to all locked-out officials not to speak with the media because it didn't want talks with the NFL jeopardized.

Steelers president Art Rooney II declined to discuss the controversy with the officials.

Steelers

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published September 26, 2012 4:00 AM


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