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Will Kick-Off To Football Season Bring More Boos?


We're going to turn now from one contact sport, politics, to another, professional football. The clock is ticking down to the start of another season. The Super Bowl champion New York Giants kick things off next week against the Dallas Cowboys, but when the referee blows the whistle, there's a good chance it will be his or her first time doing that in a regular season NFL game and you might be hearing more of this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: I don't understand what they're trying to call here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Yeah. That was a bad call.

MARTIN: A labor dispute has taken the most experienced referees off the field and replacement refs are working the games until a deal can be reached. But it's not just bad calls during the preseason that are bothering players and fans. There are concerns about players' safety and whether replacement refs can control the fast-paced and violent sport.

Pablo Torre wrote about this in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated and he's with us now. Pablo Torre, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

PABLO TORRE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, last year, it was the player lockout and, of course, I think a lot of people were following that. This year, the referees are being locked out. I don't think this has gotten quite as much attention, so what are the underlying issues here?

TORRE: Yeah. It hasn't gotten as much attention and that's all too predictable, I think, but the underlying issues are echoes of what we saw in the preseason last year with the players. It's issues about pay and pension and at the bottom of it is just this feeling of disrespect. You know, the NFL thinks that it could survive and flourish and not miss a beat, you know, with players - with referees, rather - who are not the typical officials that we're used to, the guys who are trained for this, the guys who make sort of the wheels turn in games that we don't really notice, otherwise.

MARTIN: Given some of the preseason troubles, players and fans are increasingly expressing concern that the replacement refs just aren't up to the job. For example, the Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe tweeted this weekend, quote, "the NFL really needs to kiss and make up with the refs. These replacement refs are horrible. Frankly, it's kind of embarrassing." Why are they saying that?

TORRE: They're saying that because the NFL replacement refs - you know, let's put it in context. In 2001, the last time there is a lockout with the referees, they got to get - they were able to hire and staff using refs from the top level college ranks, from division one.

This time, there are no such refs because of the officiating supervisors who are ex-NFL guys, as well, and they want to see - and these refs, right now, are just from the lower, lower levels. You know, referees who last worked games in the lingerie league, for example, high school games, low level college.

And, when you look at what it takes to be an NFL ref otherwise, it's an apprenticeship. It's 15 years of service, climbing that ladder, from peewee all the way on up. And these are guys who are stuck - you know, in the present day, the guys are just dropped in here without any of that training, which is really a stark contrast.

MARTIN: So you've saying that they have - they are lacking that kind of 15 years of apprenticeship? None of the referees that we are seeing in these preseason games have that kind of 15 years of experience in either division one or the pros that we should expect in the regular season? None of them have that?

TORRE: Yeah. There is zero NFL experience among them and none of them are current division one NFL referees - division one college referees.

MARTIN: And, if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Pablo Torre of Sports Illustrated. We're talking about the NFL referees who have now been locked out. Why is it that some people are raising concerns about safety here? I mean, people are saying this is not just a matter of, you know, bad calls or being embarrassing. People are saying that there is a real safety issue here. Can you talk about that?

TORRE: Yeah. So Roger Goodell famously has instituted the strictest safety - player safety regime we've seen in football when it comes to head trauma, concussions, making hits - you know, the sentencing of hits is so much harsher now. We've seen that with suspensions of players. And for now, to suddenly go around and say that the referees, the people who are expected to police the game, who are expected to be first responders to concussions on the field, to take the people who are most experienced at that job away, you know, that's a strong telling statement in terms of what kind of commitment the NFL actually has when the rubber meets the road.

Referees in the NFL are the ones who are supposed to make sure that players aren't doing what they're not supposed to do. And, if safety has any intersection with that problem, then that's what players in the NFLPA are especially concerned about.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about the gulf between the referees...

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and the league. I mean, how far apart are they on pay and, you know, whatever the other substantive issues are and what's the league saying about it?

TORRE: Yeah. So, in terms of pay, the NFL's proposing - basically, for laymen, the terms of the debate are in dispute, which mean that they're very far away from each other. The NFL is saying that we could give you raises five to 11 percent per year in this new CBA that they're proposing.

The NFL Referees Association is saying that they want an increase of the aggregate pie, so the NFLRA gets to decide what it pays its own employees, the referees, but the NFL needs to provide that pie and the NFLRA wants the pied to be bigger. And the NFL is not really budging on that.

And the second issue is pension, which is something that a lot of people in America today are dealing with. The NFL wants to transition to a 401K, the more standard retirement program. The NFLRA has had a - what they call defined contribution, which means - defined benefit, rather - meaning that they're not beholden to the whims of the stock market.

And so those two things together really make a pretty big gulf between the two sides.

MARTIN: Is the league saying anything about the safety issues that the players have raised? And, also, the Players Union representatives have also started raising questions about this in the media. Has the league responded to those concerns at all?

TORRE: Yeah. The league is saying that technology today and the atmosphere around referees, the infrastructure, is better than it ever has been. They point to trainers who are up in the sky in the boxes looking at players, the guys on the sidelines' cell phones, increased technology. These refs will have, you know, people in their ears, their supervisors telling them what to do. So they're saying that the referees are actually not as critical as we would all imagine when it comes to policing safety.

Now, whether that passes the smell test is a different story. I think you still need to have people on the field who are trained for this. You know, the big variable when you talk about the difference between going to the NFL - and NFL rookie referees told me this - is speed. You just don't have the ability to process a game and look at everything that's going on in that panorama at the same rates, because it's just so much faster.

And this - let's remember - is the preseason when people don't really care and players aren't trying to hurt each other. The regular season obviously is an entirely, entirely different ball game.

MARTIN: You know, you've been hearing the commentators - kind of the on-field commentators, the play-by-play announcers, talking about bad calls so far in the preseason, but so far, they've kind of had that tone of like the airline pilot, which is, you know, just - oh, well. You know, gee, we're flying into that mountain. You know, it's very - just very even and even-tempered.

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you see any - and I'm not - do you think that the fans are aware of this?

TORRE: I think the fans are increasingly aware of this, but I mean, you're right. There's - on one level, it's - you know, NFL referees booed is not a headline that is really going to make waves anywhere. We're used to booing NFL refs all the time. The problem is that, when the games start to matter, when you have 80,000 people, as one ref put it to me, watching these refs for Giants-Cowboys when the season starts, that is so - that is a staggering, terrifying thing for NFL refs who have 15 years of experience working up that ladder.

MARTIN: But, finally, you know, you heard me say his or her call. There was history made, apparently, in the preseason. The first...

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Tell me. The first female.

TORRE: Yeah. First female referee, Shannon Easton, from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, became the first NFL official to work the game. Her hat was sent off to Canton and all that. But there is also this other side to this, which is NFL refs, the union, will say there are female refs who have been in that 15 year ladder who have been waiting for that moment. So, even in that bright spot, actually, they're saying, what about the people who are on that path who just got leapfrogged because the NFL wanted to use replacements?

MARTIN: Pablo Torre is a writer for Sports Illustrated. He's also a regular member of our Barber Shop roundtable. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Thanks, Pablo. Keep us posted.

TORRE: Thank you, Michel.


MARTIN: Coming up, of the so-called BRICS nations, the emerging nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - China may be the country that Americans think about most because of its economic clout and growing swagger on the world stage. But it's the personal stories that captivate author, Yiyun Li, like the couple in the title piece of her collection, "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl."

YIYUN LI: "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl" - it means they're the perfect match. Of course, in this story, they are the perfect mismatch.

MARTIN: It's a new chapter in our BRICSion series, digging into the literature from the BRICS nations and that's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


MARTIN: We've all heard the negative comments about single mothers from politicians, preachers and the people next door, so in our moms conversation, we want to hear from a group of single moms who want to speak for themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: In the morning, you have to get up and go, do that PhD program and take care of your child and it just has to be done.

MARTIN: Single mothers speak out next time on TELL ME MORE.

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