Another stripe

8-29-01, 4:00 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals don't know quite what to expect from the NFL's replacement officials in Thursday's pre-season finale. But at least cornerback Rodney Heath knows where they're coming from.

"These guys might be thinking this is their one opportunity to make it in the NFL," Heath said Wednesday as the league locked out its regular officials over a salary and benefits dispute.

Heath can see both sides because he lived one side of it. His brother, Lee, was a farmhand of the Atlanta Braves who became a replacement player in the spring of '95.

"Lee had to do it because he had to put food on the table for his family," Rodney Heath said. "I mean, it was rough. Those boys were tough. But if he didn't do it, he would have starved."

The new officials won't starve if they don't work. But the NFL's argument is the current officials already have a full banquet table and want more.

According to ESPN.com, the officials said the NFL had reneged on some of its pension and benefit improvements. Their salary proposals were 50-75 percent higher than the NFL's offer, which doubles most current salaries by 2003.

Like many Bengals, Heath didn't seem too concerned about the replacements when he found out they have worked in arena leagues, NFL Europe and college.

"Just call the game," Heath said. "Football is football. I guess we'll find out tomorrow."

Bengals President Mike Brown, who has been involved and disappointed in the negotiations, calls the threat of striking unprofessional. He says he's confident what will happen tomorrow.

"The games will be satisfactorily officiated," Brown said. "If there are are some problems, it will be no different. There are always problems. The replacement guys will trend upwards as they get involved."

But where they start out doesn't seem to bother the Bengals. Middle linebacker Brian Simmons said he hadn't actually thought about it. Told there are about a hundred or so different interpretation between NFL

and college rules, Simmons said, "but probably only about 10 of those come up in a game. These guys have been on a football field before."

Brown said the officials could get one of two of those wrong, "but I don't think the sky will fall if they do."

Center Rich Braham could see a college official mistakenly telling a player to put in a mouthpiece, but beyond that he doesn't see a disaster.

"It's a pre-season game for the regular officials, too," Braham said. "I'm sure they're getting schooled in the differences and they'll have some time to get ready for the regular season if they have to."

Brown stands with the hard-line owners, not understanding why the refs won't take what he calls "a very generous offer.

"They're well-paid for part-time work," Brown said. "They're so well paid that many of them are in the 10- percent level of people in the United States in an income merely officiating on a few weekends during the year."

Brown said the lockout isn't the first step to firing the officials, but a result of tough negotiations.

Fullback Lorenzo Neal wasn't around for the NFL's '87 players' strike, when the owners used replacements. But he knows what it meant.

"It's the nature of things," Neal said. "When they had the deal with us, they went out and got replacements. Whether it's right or not right, only one thing is for sure. Nobody is bigger than the game. Nobody."

Thursday's game goes on at 7:30 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium against the Colts. Brown said it won't be a crew of local officials, and that's all he knew Wednesday afternoon as the club waited for a list from the league.

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