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De Smith calls officials lockout “absurd,” doesn’t rule out a strike

Super Bowl XLVI

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 05: DeMaurice Smith director of the N.F.L. players’ union walks on the field during warmups before the New York Giants take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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The talk regarding the lockout of the officials continues. It’s still unknown whether the NFLPA will take action.

But the NFLPA hasn’t ruled out doing so.

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, in an extensive interview with, was asked about the possibility that players will withhold services due to concerns regarding safety risks associated with the replacement officials.

“In America it is the employer’s obligation to provide as safe a working environment as possible,” Smith told Jim Trotter of “We believe that if the National Football League fails in that obligation we reserve the right to seek any relief that we believe is appropriate. The NFL has chosen to prevent the very officials that they have trained, championed and cultivated for decades to be on the field to protect players and -- by their own admission -- further our goal of enhanced safety. That is absurd on its face.”

To some, the possibility of a player strike may seem absurd on its face. We explained last month that it could happen, despite the presence of a no strike/no lockout provision in the CBA. Still, if the players wouldn’t risk a paycheck in order to get a better overall deal with the owners in 2011, they won’t risk paychecks over safety concerns that, based on their chronic resistance to rules changes and fines/suspensions levied by the league office, don’t concern them.

Still, the NFLPA can do other things, from making the case for the lockout to end to filing a grievance or other legal action aimed at forcing the league to allow the locked-out officials to return to work. It sounds like something tangible could be coming.

“We’ve been very public in saying that we believe on a scale of 1-10 the use of replacement referees in the preseason is a 12,” Smith said. “That goes up to a 16 now that you’re entering into the regular season.”

Smith identified three “fundamental facts that are inescapable” in support of his views: “One, the players and the league have made tremendous strides in trying to make the game safer over the last three years. The second fact is, at the players’ urging, the National Football League last year gave the referees more power to spot and deal with a concussed or injured player. The third inescapable fact is, over the last 20 years the league has done everything to maintain an experienced referee corps.”

He pointed out that, typically, rookie officials are introduced only with a team of experienced officials., and that the locked-out officials have nearly 1,500 years of experience. So why would the NFL use entire teams of rookie officials? “The only conclusion that I have,” Smith said, “is that the league cares more about money than it does about the experience of the referees as a vehicle to increase player safety.”

Smith also called upon owners to be involved in the process.

“The owners have invested in the players, and each and every owner loves what keeps the National Football League unique among sports. And it’s two things, on any given Sunday a team could win; and every game matters,” Smith said. “So my question to the owners is, because those two things are true, why would they ever want to leave the game in critical moments in the hands of referees that they ordinarily would never hire? I mean, If these referees were so credible, how come they hadn’t hired them before the lockout?”

We’ve disagreed with Smith at certain times in the past. It’s very hard to disagree with him on this point.

Using new officials creates a risk of errors that will affect the outcomes of games. With the margin between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs at times razor thin and with recent history showing us that any team that gets in to the postseason can run the table, a bad, game-altering call in Week One could, in a roundabout way, have an effect on the outcome of the season.

The two sides simply don’t seem to be far enough apart to justify that risk. The problem is that there’s no one who can clunk the parties’ heads together, Moe Howard-style, and force them to find a middle ground.

Until that happens, the two sides will continue to line up like the boys and the girls on opposite walls at the junior high dance, waiting for each other to make the first move.