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Rick Shapiro
Rick Shapiro
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The NFL Replacement Referees and Injury Law

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Now that the NFL replacement ref fiasco is finally over, we can take a moment to reflect on the greater issue of player safety that underlined the debate between the regular referees and the NFL ownership. For players, fans and coaches, the start to the 2012 NFL season was frustrating to say the least. Many of us felt like there was suddenly a “third team” on the field that was having a huge impact on game outcomes through missed calls, bad calls and a loss of control on the field. Even after a few weeks of getting into the swing of things, it took perhaps the greatest botched call in NFL history on Monday Night Football to finally cause the dam to break.

As frustrating as the referee situation may be from the perspective of the fans (I know my fantasy team has taken some hits), the real problem with the replacement refs is much bigger: player safety. Referees are doing a lot more out on the field than we may realize and now that under-qualified officials are taking the field for every single game that is becoming increasingly obvious. Proper enforcement of the rules of play—and control over the players—is the key to ensuring player safety. Illegal hits mean that players are simply getting more injuries. A general lack of authority to keep the players in check means that games each week are getting rougher and rougher. Player—and coach—frustration over missed and bad calls means emotions are running higher on the field and the players are taking it out on each other. Add on to that a lack of penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits.

The bottom line is that the referees were simply overwhelmed on the field. They were in over their heads and the players are paying the price with their bodies. This is unfortunate and honestly a bit surprising at a time when the NFL has some serious image problems to worry about when it comes to player safety. Remember that in the last several months, thousands of former players and their families have sued the NFL over head injuries that they allege the NFL didn’t do enough to prevent or warn about. Or think about the fines that the leagues has recently levied against teams for engaging in intentionally dangerous play. Does the NFL really care about player safety? All of this makes you wonder if the NFL is headed down the road to another string of lawsuits related to the replacement refs. It certainly seems possible.

Football is, of course, an extremely physical and inherently dangerous game. But there are rules in place to manage the risks that are part of the game. Players depend on strong, skilled and knowledgeable referees to enforce those rules. Hopefully, now that the contract negotiations seem to be over, the NFL will recognize that they dodged what would have been much more problematic than a missed TD call… and that is a serious injury to one of the players.

About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC). The attorneys publish articles and edit the Legal Examiner for the Virginia Beach, Norfolk andNortheast North Carolina regions as pro bono service.