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Assault on Pereira misses the point

Former NFL V.P. of officiating Mike Pereira has been a vocal critic of the league’s decision to lock out referees and use replacements. And the league, which would prefer that no one (especially a former league-office insider) be saying anything critical about the replacement officials, doesn’t like it. Not one bit.

Some say Pereira is trying to help his buddies, the locked-out officials. That dynamic is balanced out, in our view, by the reality that Pereira was, you know, their boss. Moreover, as the rules analyst for the NFL on FOX, Pereira works for one of the league’s “broadcast partners.” By calling out the NFL regarding the use of replacement officials, Pereira runs the risk of the Playmakers-style placement of pressure on the powers-that-be by the folks at 345 Park Avenue.

There’s no evidence that any arms have been twisted. (And I’d probably be wise to shut up about arm twisting before my own arm gets twisted.) Instead, it appears that the NFL has opted to discredit Pereira by pointing out to Mike Freeman of an article written by Pereira during the last lockout of officials, when Pereira was the V.P. of officiating.

Before I go any farther, I need to be clear on two things. First, Freeman is a friend, and I am trying my damnedest to tell it like it is without gratuitously criticizing Mike or his work. Second, it’s my opinion that the NFL made Freeman aware of the article, especially since Freeman also got his hands on an 11-year-old internal NFL memo from Pereira to the replacement officials. (My opinion may be wrong, but it’s still my opinion.)

Here’s the problem that the league has overlooked. The last time the NFL locked out the officials, the replacements came largely from the NCAA’s Division I conferences. This time, the Division I conferences told their officials that, if they accept work with the NFL, their spots will be filled. Thus, they had to choose between a handful of games as NFL replacement officials or a full season (and beyond) of their existing college football assignments.

If we accept the notion that the best officials have been hired by the NFL and that the NCAA’s Division I conferences get the second-best officials, the 2012 lockout features at best the third tier and lower of officiating quality, including high-school officials and men who called games for the Lingerie Football League. That’s the gist of Pereira’s concern that the lockout undermines the integrity of the game.

That said, the following portion of the 11-year-old memo to the replacement officials cuts against the concerns Pereira has articulated in 2012: “We are using you because of your ability and instincts as an official. The game is the same no matter on what level it is played. You officiate the game and we will guide you through the differences in the rules.”

The goal of that memo presumably (if not obviously) was to give the replacement officials confidence that they could do the job. Surely, Pereira wasn’t going to say, “We know you stink and you know you stink but let’s act like you don’t stink until we can get the regular officials to cave.”

Freeman also regards as significant the fact that Pereira was a “backup replacement official” in 2001. Taking that one step farther, Commissioner Roger Goodell told me 12 days ago on The Dan Patrick Show that Pereira actually worked games as a replacement official during the last lockout.

Either way, that point doesn’t have any relevance to Pereira’s current opposition to the use of third-tier-and-worse officials. Pereira, as the photo we routinely use of him getting his ass chewed by Bill Parcells illustrates, was an official before he became the V.P. of officiating. Thus, if the NFL is going to use replacement officials, anyone working in the league office who has been an official should be used. (This time around, it’s unclear whether NFL V.P. of officiating Carl Johnson will be breaking his striped shirt out of mothballs.)

Perhaps most importantly, any actual or perceived inconsistencies can be explained by one very simple distinction: In 2001, Pereira worked for the NFL. In 2012, he doesn’t.

As Pereira told PFT in response to the Freeman article, “I worked for the league at that point. What would you expect me to say?”

Ultimately, this is far different from the Jon Stewart parade of conflicting sound bites. Eleven years ago, Pereira worked for the league as the supervisor of officials. Today, he doesn’t work for the league, which allows him to be candid regarding his views. He also has the benefit of the 2001 lockout experience in shaping his current views.

Given the differences in the circumstances surrounding the replacement officials and the differences in the employment status of Pereira, his current views are, in our view, not diminished by statements made back in 2001. Besides, who other than Pereira is in position to educate the fans and the media on the issues arising from the use of replacement officials who exclusively will come from levels of the sport below the NCAA’s Division I?

As Patriots coach Bill Belichick said last week, “I don’t know who knows more about NFL officiating than Mike Pereira, so we’ll leave it to him.”

If it’s good enough for the guy whose name Michael Irvin wants to add to the Lombardi Trophy, it’s good enough for me.