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Earning One’s Stripes…Again

Integrity was restored to the National Football League early this morning. As well a father’s life-long lessons on that same subject.

Three months after the labor impasse began – and three days after the ignominy of a blown call in Seattle by replacement officials that cost the Green Bay Packers a victory and tarnished the league in the eyes of almost every observer — the NFL and the NFL Referees Association agreed to terms of a tentative eight-year agreement in the wee hours Thursday. The deal still needs to be ratified by the 121 members of the NFLRA on Friday, but the temporary lift on the lockout allows for the regular officials to start working as soon as tonight’s Cleveland Browns-Baltimore Ravens game.

For one official, however, this meant much more than getting back to the job he loves and has dedicated his time to on all levels for more than 20 years.

A couple of days after visiting one of his children in college during Week 1 of the regular season, he spoke anonymously to A Lot Of Sports Talk about the importance the job in relation to raising his family, as well as shaping his values.

“I live this life of being an official, and my children lived it with me,” he asserted. “Our lives were intertwined with officiating. They learned integrity, respect, how to become responsible. They saw it in front of their eyes.”

“Being an official helped me pay for my kids to go to college, have them leave school without debt.”

“I haven’t worked a game for the money yet.”

The ongoing lockout obviously grated on him, but he focused specifically on the sacrifice of not being with his kids so many times as they were going through adolescence.

“Since my oldest was eight years old, I’ve been away because of football. Right now, I’m paying back my children for that. For those lost times.”

“How do I look at my kids and say I’ve done this for over 20 years for this (being locked out)? I feel like it’s an injustice to them.”

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There were many issues keeping the two sides apart, including the possibility of hiring replacement crews for underperforming officials and the amount of salary increases. But the crux stemmed from the league’s then-hidebound position to eliminate the defined-benefit plan that has been in place with for the officials since the 1970s and replace with 401(k)s.

In essence, shift the market risk from the league onto the officials.

All of the officials work for the league on a part-time basis, with many of them already having other full-time jobs; hence why almost all people think with unanimity the league drew the line in the sand in terms of pensions and its elimination.

He questioned the motives of the league and its owners.

“Why do the owners own?” the unnamed official said, his voice becoming more demosthenic with every comment. “Is it for a living, or is it their toy? I don’t understand the end game. “

Although reports varied during the past few months about the monetary gap between the two sides, he said the difference between them in getting a deal done was just a little more than $3 million, or $100,000 per team over a five-year contract.

The NFL has been reported as being a $9 billion entity, with projections putting that value in upwards of $18 billion by 2016. The officials’ entire budget – which includes pay, travel, pensions – added up to just over $20 million, or less than one-third of one percent of the entire revenue of the NFL.

“This can’t be about the money,” he said. Are they trying to break a union? I don’t get it.”

As the season began with replacement officials culled from Division II, III, high school, retirees, etc. – and as the mistakes grew more egregious with every game – the league continued to convey the message throughout that the officials, not only were doing their best, but were actually doing a good job overall.

NFL commissioner Roger Goddell used words ranging from “adequate” to “outstanding” to describe the ersatz zebras in the first couple of weeks.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from the league,” talking about how the league’s standards are second to none when it comes to officiating.

“This is not a league that accepts adequate. Never.”

What really stood out in comparison to the comments made by the league was his own process in being approved as an official at the highest level.

“When they hired me, they made sure I was squeaky clean. They vetted, did all of the background checks. No stone was unturned to make sure I upheld the integrity of the shield when I put on the uniform. Then all of a sudden, it was OK for them to accept adequate? That all of what I went through could be replaced in 90 days, like a light bulb, was just…I don’t know. ”

Our conversation became more of a monologue, his diatribes more colorful. At one point, he compared the situation, and the league’s message to its fans, players and investors, to a movie that he and his children may have very well watched together to learn life lessons.

“Don’t believe everything you’re hearing and seeing. It’s like The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard says there’s nothing to see here. But there is. People have to know what the truth is.”

“Where’s Toto? Who’s going to remove the curtain?”

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One of the games that stood out to him while watching the opening week’s slate of games was between Seattle and Arizona, where the officials on Seattle’s last drive granted the Seahawks a timeout with 30 seconds remaining despite they having no timeouts.

Two plays prior, with Seattle having one timeout left and down 20-16, wide receiver Doug Baldwin was injured trying to make a diving catch and remained on the ground. Since the officials had to stop play for an injury with less than two minutes remaining in a half, the team with the injured player (Seattle) should have been charged its final timeout.

They were not charged, and as the officials sorted out the administrative mess on its hands when the Seahawks called for a timeout afterwards, the game had already been “ruined.”

“No team won that game,” he said. “Seattle had four-and-a-half minutes to plan a play that they should not have had. Arizona had four-and-a-half minutes to devise something to stop them, and they shouldn’t have had that time as well.”

“The game didn’t finish the way it was supposed to.”

Arizona ended up winning the game by the same score, after stopping the Seahawks from scoring the winning touchdown on three consecutive plays. After the game, many people, including Peter King during NBC’s Football Night In America pregame show, stated that the league “dodged a bullet” when Arizona ended up winning the game and that Seattle being the beneficiary of a shocking officiating oversight did not impact the end result. That sentiment was almost shared nationally as well.

He was no mood to buy it.

“So what? The bullet has already been shot.”

This past Monday Night, on a national stage, the Green Bay Packers were hit in the crossfire.

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That final play at CenturyLink Field– Clueless in Seattle, Fail Mary, or whatever moniker you want to assign to the debacle — was the tipping point. Golden Tate’s “catch” on a Hail Mary pass on the last play of the game gave Seattle a possible season-altering 14-12 win over the Packers, although replays clearly show Green Bay defensive back M.D. Jennings having clear possession of the ball as both players initially hit the field turf in the end zone.

Seattle celebrated.

Everyone else – the Packers, the announcers, you, me and every one else that loves the game of football – fumed. The curtain was removed.

Even before that dreadful Monday night that will rank right up there in Monday night lore with Bo Jackson’s jaunts as an L.A. Raider against the Seahawks in the Kingdome 25 years prior, the official was worried that the worst nightmare was just around the corner — if it hadn’t arrived already.

“Sometimes, a government doesn’t talk about the roads or bridges until those roads and bridges collapse. We (the regular officials) don’t want them to collapse.”

After that game, the crumbling that could be heard over the din of 67,000-plus delirious fans was that of the image of the National Football League.

The charade might have unofficially ended then, but the indelible black eye left on “The Shield” was official.

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In just a matter of moments, the regular officials will take the field at M&T Bank Stadium, on the shores of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. The league will have to do a lot of ingratiating to its fans to sell the idea once again of integrity that comes with its brand.

One of those men, in the black and white vertical stripes this weekend, never lost his integrity. And again –from a distance — his children can see, through their patriarch, what that word is all about.

(Photo by Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

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