South Jersey senator: Ban replacement refs

State Sen. Stephen Sweeney has a plan to cut taxes in New Jersey. (File)
State Sen. Stephen Sweeney has a plan to cut taxes in New Jersey. (File)
Posted: September 26, 2012

Sick of the replacement referees in the NFL this season? So is one powerful New Jersey legislator, who wants to put an end to indecisiveness, missed calls and other cringe-worthy officiating - at least at Giants and Jets games.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) today announced plans to introduce a bill to ban playing professional sports in New Jersey with replacement officials.

The reason, he said, isn't that Sweeney is a fan of the Green Bay Packers, who lost last night to the Seattle Seahawks in a last-second touchdown that didn't appear to be a touchdown.

His stated reason is the potential for injury to players resulting from inexperienced refs "who cannot control a game."

"This past weekend in the NFL has not only made a mockery of a great sport but shined a very bright light on how important fully trained and professional officiating is to player safety," Sweeney said in a statement. "We wouldn't allow a factory or construction site to operate without fully trained supervisors on hand to ensure the safety of employees. Why should we do anything differently when the job site is a playing field?"

Sweeney, a labor leader and official with the International Association of Ironworkers, also noted that officials are "devaluing" the "investments fans have made in tickets."

The league gave his bill a chilly response.

"We appreciate Sen. Sweeney's interest, but officiating controversies have always been a part of sports," said an e-mail from NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "Our staff, including Commissioner (Roger) Goodell, has been in negotiations with the referees union for the past week. We hope to reach agreement as soon as possible."

Replacement officials have been working NFL games since the beginning of the season due to a labor dispute that largely hinges on traditional pension benefits for officials that the league wants to scrap and replace with a 401(k) plan. The referees have resisted, and the NFL locked them out.

Coaches, players and commentators have repeatedly and often colorfully complained about overmatched replacement officials, who have sometimes signaled the wrong way and assessed penalties incorrectly. Several games have been heavy with scuffles as the new refs struggle to control the games.

"I turned the game off last night because of it," said U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R., N.J.), a former Eagles offensive lineman. Runyan, after an editorial board meeting at the Inquirer, called the situation "frustrating" but didn't see Sweeney's bill as an answer.

Even it became law, he said, the NFL could just designate its current referees as their regular officials. Runyan said public pressure will bring about a deal because many fans are angry.

"Being a very large spectator sport, they want to keep their clientele happy, and there's not a lot of people happy right now, so that sentiment's going to boil over and get people motivated at the end of the day," Runyan said.

Monday night's Green Bay-Seattle game upped the national criticism when the referees awarded Seattle a game-deciding touchdown on the final play, when it seemed the Packers had intercepted the ball. On Tuesday the league issued a statement defending the referees' decision.

Sweeney, a Packers fan since 1964, denied that he was trying legislate his fury at a Green Bay loss.

"Every team is seeing the outcome of poor performance from officials," he said. "What if we miss the playoffs by one game? Should we put an asterisks next to the Super Bowl champion this year?"

Asked if Sweeney thought he could legally stop NFL games from being played in the state, he said, "I can try. I'm hoping that other states raise the issue and more people raise hell."

After last night's game, Sweeney said, he doesn't want to watch football until the regular referees return.

"Bad calls happen," he said. "This is fraud, to me."


Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/christiechronicles

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