Locked-out in a labor fight, officials are facing the prospect of being supplanted -- at least temporarily -- by vastly less-experienced replacements, some of whom have been plucked from the high school or junior college ranks.
"We feel that we're fired," said Jerry Markbreit, an 33-year official-turned-trainer who was the referee in four Super Bowls and eight conference championships. "They haven't formally notified us, but it sure feels like we're fired."
The other eight officiating asked to return their computers were Red Cashion, Ron Botchan, Bill Schmitz, Ben Montgomery, Jim Quirk, Sid Semon, Tom Fincken, Dean Look. Those men, who are not currently members of the union, have 265 years of total service with the league and have worked a combined 22 Super Bowls.
"They wanted us to train the replacements which would absolutely not do," said Markbreit, a native of Chicago and longtime resident of Skokie who wrote a column about officiating for the Tribune for many years. "We were all officials for 20-plus years. How could we face our people? There wasn't a question about us doing this. We knew this was coming.
"It's very discouraging for [the league] to have put us in this kind of situation."
Markbreit, who retired in 1999 and has been training officials for the past decade, also appeared on WSCR-AM 670's "The McNeil and Spiegel Show" Friday, where he said: "When you put replacements in there, you are compromising the nature of the game. None of them (are) from Division 1 colleges. The colleges and conferences will not allow their officials to work for the National Football League.
The active officials believe the NFL had the idea all along of locking them out as a negotiating strategy. Those officials, who are considered part-time employees, are looking for what they call a modest pay increase and continuation of their defined-benefits pension program.
After Markbreit's comments were published, the NFL responded with a statement saying the trainers were not fired but are seasonal employees "who have decided not to work at this time. We asked for their NFL-issued laptops back so that those who are working right now can use them."
Meanwhile, the league formally began training stand-ins, who likely will see action for the first time since 2001 when replacements were used for the final exhibition games and first week of the regular season.
Tony Corrente, a locked-out referee, said the speed of the pro game and the nuances of the NFL rules -- which can be significantly different than those of college and high school football -- could lead to problems for the replacements.
"It will really show up in the two-minute offenses, there are such amazingly complicated timing rules," Corrente said. "That's not something you're going to learn in a weekend seminar."