Keeping Score

Will Replacement Refs Put NFL Players’ Safety at Risk?

The NFL has pushed for player safety improvements. Yet, because of a labor dispute, the league is locking out its referees. Why this could be a dangerous call.

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Tom Hauck / AP

The replacement referees talk during the game in an NFL preseason football game in Denver, Aug. 26, 2012.

Last October, San Diego Chargers offensive lineman Kris Dielman suffered a concussion during a game against the New York Jets. He staggered backwards after a hit, and a game official checked to see if he was OK. Deilman waved the zebra off, and remained in the game. San Diego’s medical staff could not see Dielman from the sideline, so it missed his obvious concussion symptom.

On the flight home from New York, Dielman suffered a seizure. He missed the rest of the season, and retired because of concussion concerns.

After his alarming incident, the NFL took an immediate step to improve player safety. The league told its refs to be more diligent in spotting concussion symptoms and alerting medical staffs about possible problems. The league gave its refs more information about the typical signs of concussion, and incorporated concussion education into weekly training reviews. “In combat sports like boxing and MMA, the primary job of the ref, before anything else, is the safety of the combatants,” says Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the country’s foremost experts on concussions, author of the upcoming book Concussions and Our Kids, and a senior adviser to the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee. Cantu supported the NFL’s efforts to better educate its refs.

But now Cantu is nervous, because these trained refs are now on the sidelines, and will probably remain there when the NFL regular season kicks off on Sept. 5. “I’m concerned about the safety of the players,” says Cantu. Since June 3, the league has locked out its referees because of a labor dispute. Replacement referees, many of whom have worked in lower college ranks — one even did time in the Lingerie Football League — have officiated the pre-season games, and on Wednesday, the NFL said the regular season would begin with these replacement refs. The league and its regular referees are primarily fighting over salaries and retirement benefits; the two sides haven’t even met since the end of July.

(MORE: Why The NFL Needs A Concussion Ref)

During the preseason, the replacements have had their Keystone Cop moments, and not inspired a ton of confidence in their competence. At times they’ve looked confused, and though the regular refs are far from perfect, the replacements have made some absurd mistakes. Most egregiously, one crew called a punt that was obviously downed at the four-yard line a touchback. (The call was reversed, thanks to a replay challenge). During Wednesday night’s New York Giants-New England Patriots preseason game, referee Don King bumbled while announcing penalty calls.

If these officials can’t spot a football, how will they spot woozy players? As the speed of the game increases during the regular season, will the players feel more leeway to hit with their helmets, confident that the refs will miss the call? Will these inexperienced refs be able to control a violent game? “The players are at greater risk than they would have been with referees who had the concussion training,” says Cantu.

This off-season, the health risks of football have remained a top-line issue. Two more NFL players, ex-star Junior Seau, and Tennessee Titans wide receiver O.J. Murdock, took their own lives. Neither suicide has been scientifically linked — yet — to concussions or head trauma. Still, given recent examples of football players taking their lives after struggling with symptoms of chronic head trauma, these incidents just further highlighted the risks of playing football  (the brains of both players have been donated to research).

(PHOTOS: The NFL Returns to Life)

So at a time when the league and its players are very sensitive to player-safety issues, and at a time when the NFL is generating $10 billion in revenues, the league is benching its top-flight officials, trained in how spot at-risk players and flag dangerous hits, because of a labor tiff. At least one of the NFL’s primary critics, players union chief DeMaurice Smith, offered what seems like a logical take on the impasse: that when faced with tough choices, the NFL puts business first.  “The only conclusion that I have,” Smith told, “is that the league cares more about money than it does about the experience of the referees as a vehicle to increase player safety.

The NFL denies that the lockout puts players at any additional risk. “We don’t see a connection between unsafe play and the officials down on the field,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello tells TIME. Aiello says that spotting injuries has always been the primary responsibility of team medical staffs. This year, with the independent athletic trainers watching from the press box, and new video technology on the sidelines that lets team doctors better monitor players during the game, the NFL is on its highest alert about in-game head injuries. “We’ve got more medical infrastructure than ever to protect players,” says Aiello.

Aiello also notes that over the last three months, the NFL has given the replacement refs the same kind of concussion education and awareness training that the regular refs received. He says the NFL has schooled the new officials about penalties for dangerous hits. Plus, even if the referees miss a call on the field, NFL officials can penalize players for reckless play after subsequently catching infractions on video. These fines, Aiello says, also act as a deterrent that improve safety. “The thought that players will play differently because of player of replacement officials – we don’t buy that,” says Aiello. “We haven’t seen that in the preseason, and don’t believe that will be the case.”

We hope he’s right. If this lockout drags, and the NFL is beset by head injuries or woozy players remain in the game, lots of people will be wondering: would this have happened with the real refs?

MORE: Remembering ex-NFL Star Junior Seau