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NFL is back, but with replacement refs

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Sarah Gardner: Football fans, rejoice. Tonight the 2012 NFL season begins. It’s the Cowboys versus the Giants — and the players, the coaches, the hot dog vendors, they’re all ready to get back to work. Except for the referees. Those guys in the pinstripe shirts tonight will be last minute replacements. They’ll be standing in for the league’s regular officials because of a contract dispute, fighting the league over a plan to eliminate their pensions, among other things.

And that got us wondering, all that running back and forth, blowing those whistles, getting shouted at by angry coaches and players. What do NFL refs get in return? We asked Doug Tribou from WBUR in Boston to find out.

Doug Tribou: For a long time, Bill Carollo’s business attire was a striped suit.

Bill Carollo: I worked 20 years in the NFL, primarily as a head referee.

Today Carollo oversees the officials for four Division I college football conferences. He retired from the NFL after the 2009 season.

Carollo: The average official will spend about 25 hours a week on football. If you’re a head referee, he’s more like 30-35 hours.

Under the last contract, rookies made more than $75,000. Seniors refs could  bring in almost $200,000. That’s about half of what officials in other major pro sports make. And NFL refs are part-time.

Andrew Brandt: These referees are almost like submarine workers. They’re in the bunker for those six months and then they’re free for those other six months.

Andrew Brandt is ESPN’s NFL business analyst and former vice president of the Green Bay Packers.

Brandt: So the question has to be what kind of job will allow that complete flexibility?

For Bill Carollo that meant holding down some small side jobs — well,  not so small. First he was an international account executive for IBM and later a vice president at the job-placement firm Manpower. He says most of the 119 NFL refs have a second job, but regardless of what they do off the field, one thing never changes.

Carollo: Sunday afternoon at kick-off, for those three hours — it’s beautiful.

But for now, at least, regular NFL officials will be at home — waiting to see if their replacements are up to the task.

I’m Doug Tribou for Marketplace.

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