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Jim Duke is an NFL referee. As the umpire in his seven-man crew, he sets up about 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage and looks for such things as too many men on the field before a snap or offensive linemen who break downfield too soon after it.

He worked the Packers-Dolphins game in Green Bay last weekend, his third exhibition in as many weeks. That’s a normal preseason workload for Duke, a D.C. native now living in Upper Marlboro.

“It’s been business as usual,” says Duke.

Next weekend, he’ll begin his ninth season with the NFL. That is, unless he’s replaced by a scab.

Which is why, no matter what Duke says, it can’t possibly be business as usual. Not for him, or for any of the 118 other NFL refs—four of whom also live in the D.C. area—who any day now could lose the jobs that took them years of apprenticeship to get. Duke had worn a striped shirt and blown a whistle for more than 20 years for next to no pay—at every level from peewee on up—before getting invited to the big show in 1993.

There are any number of ways that NFL refs are different from those in other professional sports. It’s often said that the best game officials, like the best offensive linemen, are the ones never noticed. But only NFL refs must stand up and be counted as a matter of procedure: No other pastime demands that its arbiters wear microphones and requires them to explain every major call over the public address system to everybody in the stadium—as well as to everybody tuned in to a regional or national television broadcast. And no other pastime has such an elaborate system to encourage competitors to officially appeal the snap judgments the referees must make—with a very good chance that those judgments will be overturned. Clearly, the NFL ref has the hardest job in officialdom.

But what’s holding up the current negotiations between the refs and the NFL has nothing to do with overscrutiny. It’s all about the fiscal differences between the football refs and their peers. Of all the major leagues, only the NFL uses part-timers. Even hard-core football fans are surprised by the news that the referees in perhaps the richest sports confederation on the planet make as little as $24,327 per year. (For his mostly negative on-field contributions to the Redskins last year, Deion Sanders was paid $8.5 million. )

So, unlike hockey and basketball refs and baseball umpires, NFL zebras, out of necessity, supplement their whistle-blowing work with another professional career. Duke retired from the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation in 1997 after 31 years with the city. He now serves as director of volunteer resources, a paid position, for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.

The media coverage of this labor/management situation has, thus far, been blatantly one-sided. One reason for that mismatch is that Duke and other members of the NFL Referees’ Association, the union representing the refs, aren’t talking to the press about how they’d like the labor situation resolved.

“We’ve agreed not to talk about specifics,” says Scott Edwards, an NFL ref now living in Alexandria. Both Duke and Edwards referred questions about the union’s proposal to the referees’ chief negotiator, Tom Condon.

Condon did not return phone calls. (Strange but true: Condon’s most famous client before taking the referees’ case was referee-attacker Orlando “Zeus” Brown—the 6-foot-7, 350-pound former Browns tackle who, in December 1999, shoved a ref to the ground after being hit in the eye with a poorly thrown penalty flag. The blindness Brown suffered from the ref’s ill-advised toss forced his retirement.) In some press reports, Condon has said that members, even though the league calls them part-timers, average about 40 hours per week fulfilling their NFL chores and that they’re just asking for parity with refs in other sports.

But the union’s position has been overpowered by the NFL’s publicity machine. Which should have been expected, given that in football’s last big labor dispute—the NFL Players Association’s strike of 1987—the league did such a thorough job that the scab players ended up looking like so many Horatio Alger figures. Hence the Keanu Reeves movie The Replacements.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, himself a Washington lawyer, also seems to have read up on Ronald Reagan’s handling of the air-traffic-controllers strike of 20 years ago. Reagan, just a few months into his first term, so successfully demonized the controllers and their union that he was able to fire more than 11,000 members with very little political fallout.

Tagliabue, just as the Great Communicator did in 1981, has both prepared the public for a work stoppage and trashed the other side. In all his public statements, Tagliabue has been careful to stress only the percentage of the raises that referees asked for in opening proposals.

“They started months ago by wanting a 400 percent, 500 percent increase in their wages,” Tagliabue said in a statement posted on the NFL’s Web site. He went on to call the union’s proposal “unrealistic…in this type of an economy.”

Because the league has historically underpaid its officials, the percentage strategy makes for a far more compelling case with the general public than would the salaries that the NFL is offering in return—how many football fans can ask their boss for a 500 percent raise? Tagliabue never mentions, however, that some of his refs make less than $25,000 a year.

In the grandest grandstanding move yet made during the negotiations, Tagliabue last week wrote to each of the 119 members of the referees’ union asking them to give in, then boasted to the press what he said in the letter.

The commissioner’s prose didn’t have much of an impact on Duke, who employs a percentage of his own to voice his support for the labor leaders.

“We’re behind the union 100 percent,” he says.

Barring a sudden resolution, Duke will stay home this weekend, and his spot on the crew will be filled with a nonunion referee. Last week, the NFL began offering nonunion referees $4,000 to work the last round of preseason games.

When the Redskins open the regular season on Sept. 9 in San Diego, they’ll face Doug Flutie, now quarterbacking the Chargers. Flutie crossed the NFLPA’s picket lines in 1987 to play for his hometown New England Patriots. He is believed to be one of only two remaining strike breakers still in the league. (Ray Brown of the 49ers is the other.) So, no matter how the referees’ situation works out, there’ll be at least one scab on the field come kickoff. —Dave McKenna