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Kevin Schnepf, Published September 25 2012

Schnepf: Has bashing of replacement referees gone too far?

Phil Hansen has been there, done that as a player in the National Football League. But not as a referee – which has suddenly become the most dangerous job in the country.

“Actually, I pursued officiating in the NFL after I ended my career,” Hansen said, referring to his 11-year NFL stint with the Buffalo Bills. “They wanted former players in there who could work their way up. But it would’ve been more than I could handle with all the obligations and time away from home.”

It’s probably better for Hansen that he has limited his officiating to high school football games near his home in Detroit Lakes, Minn. Because life as an NFL official – whether you are a regular ref holding out for a pension plan or a replacement ref holding your breath every time you blow your whistle – has become quite turbulent.

The replacements – who are used to officiating college games at the same level of a Concordia or Mayville State – have been placed under a gigantic microscope ever since the NFL season began three weeks ago.

It all came to a deafening crescendo Monday night when an official’s call helped Seattle defeat Green Bay on the last play of the game. While Seattle fans celebrated a touchdown catch, Packer players and fans, fantasy football geeks and NFL pundits remain outraged that it wasn’t ruled an interception.

Even President Barack Obama weighed in on the hullabaloo, urging the NFL to settle its labor dispute with the regular refs.

“I see it from a lot of perspectives, as a player and as a ref,” said Hansen, the former All-American from North Dakota State University. “From the replay I saw, it looked pretty close. It would’ve been a tough call for the regular officials.”

There was a good part of me that hopped on the “bash-the-refs bandwagon” after watching countless replays and listening to every ESPN announcer and analyst proclaim – without a doubt – that it was an interception.

But after listening to pundits like Steve Young proclaim replacement refs have ruined the integrity of the NFL, I started to jump off this fashionable bandwagon. And I was completely off the wagon after Rick Reilly said “the league is a Mona Lisa and they are painting a mustache on it.”

Of course, ESPN is milking this for all it’s worth. More drama, more controversy means higher ratings – the same formula used for the reality TV shows we have been bombarded with this past decade.

And the NFL owners who refuse to give the regular refs a pension package must be snickering a little bit. Ratings have never been higher for the NFL. There are those who have never watched a down of football who have joined the NFL conversations.

“I can definitely feel for these refs,” Hansen said. “It’s a fast-paced game that these guys are not used to. The speed of the game is tremendous.

“I remember going from college to the NFL. Those first couple of weeks I was just trying to keep up. I was just holding on for the ride. Eventually, you learn to find that extra gear and you know what’s coming.”

And even though these refs are more accustomed to a slower college game at the NAIA and Division III level, there are numbers that have been published to suggest they aren’t as bad as we all think they are.

Yes, there has been an increase in the number of challenges to officials’ calls this season. But only 31 percent have been overturned, down from the 52 percent at this time last year. And these are reviewed by an official who isn’t a replacement.

Yes, we tend to think the games are dragging on too long because of their inexperience to manage an NFL game. But during the first two weeks, the average penalty call took 31.3 seconds – only eight seconds longer than the average call last year.

So just how long will the regular refs hold out? The NFL argues they don’t deserve a pension package because they are not full-time. Perhaps the regular refs should accept the NFL’s offer to increase their average $149,000 salary by as much as 11 percent.

Not a bad deal, considering the replacements are making $3,000 a game – half of what the regular refs make.

“I really hope the NFL can work out something,” Hansen said. “I think they have a great core of officials and they have a great plan to bring new officials in along the way. These guys have to take tests all the time. It’s almost a year-round job.”

The job now is to temper all these heated complaints. Because even when the real refs return … “There are still going to be complaints,” Hansen said. “We wouldn’t have instant replay if there weren’t any complaints.”

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or at kschnepf@forumcomm.com