Fans And Players Throw Flags At NFL-Refs Labor Dispute
By Tim Richardson
A year ago, the National Football League was absorbed in an ugly labor dispute. Just a season later, the league is embattled in yet another labor issue. This time, the issue involves referees and not players, and the quality of the on-field product is being diminished, and the use of replacement officials could have ramifications, depending on how long the clash lasts.
On Aug. 29, the NFL notified all 32 teams that it would use replacement officials during Week One of the regular season. In a memo sent to the teams, Ray Anderson, NFL executive vice president of football operations, said replacements would be on the field Wednesday night, when the Dallas Cowboys visit the New York Giants during the opening game of the NFL season. The memo also said negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Referees' Association were deadlocked. The NFL locked out the officials in early June.
As expected, the NFLRA countered the NFL's position by issuing a statement following the release of the league's memo.
"It now appears the NFL is willing to forgo any attempt to reach a deal in the last seven days before opening night," the NFLRA statement said. "It is unfortunate, because the referees want to get back on the field. Our members have been engaged in extensive preparations and are ready to go. If the NFL is serious about negotiating, we are ready, but we can't negotiate with ourselves."
Anderson told league-owned NFL Network that the NFL was "committing to the replacement officials for as long as we need them to perform their services. It's a week-by-week basis, but they are prepared to go the distance if required."
Anderson said he thought it would take full-time officials 7-10 days to be fully prepared to officiate games once an agreement was reached. A number of rules were changed following last season, and the NFL has not shared those revisions with the regular officials since they were locked out. With all teams in action by Sept. 10, the longer it takes to reach an agreement, the more likely the 2012 season will be tainted.
The NFL used replacement officials -- none of whom came from NCAA Division I ranks, according to the NFLRA -- throughout the preseason, and their performances received unfavorable reviews by players, fans and commentators.
During the Ravens' 31-17, preseason win against the Atlanta Falcons in August, replacement official Craig Ochoa's mistakes weren't limited to his penalty calls. Throughout the game, he referred to the Falcons as "Arizona" when explaining various penalties to the crowd.
|Cary Williams shares a few words with an official during the Ravens' preseason opener.
Sporting News conducted a poll of 146 players from 29 teams. The results showed that 90.4 percent, or 132 players, think games would be negatively impacted if replacement officials were used. Of the 132 players that responded, approximately 50 percent said the game would suffer intensely, while around 42 percent said the difference would be marginal. Fourteen players thought the season would proceed normally.
DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, is not making fans feel any better. He told Sports Illustrated the NFLPA didn't rule out the possibility of a strike, because of concern for player safety.
"In America, it is the employer's obligation to provide as safe a working environment as possible," Smith told SI's Jim Trotter. "We believe that if the National Football League fails in that obligation, we reserve the right to seek any relief that we believe is appropriate.
"The NFL has chosen to prevent the very officials that they have trained, championed and cultivated for decades to be on the field to protect players and -- by their own admission -- further our goal of enhanced safety. That is absurd on its face."
Although some players, such as Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea, have voiced support for the officials, it's highly unlikely any player would vote to give up a game check as a sign of solidarity for referees.
Fifteen-year NFL veteran Charles Woodson told USA Today that he was not going to draw any conclusions before the preseason. But when the preseason was finished, Woodson said: "They [replacements] haven't been very good. That's the honest opinion. Before preseason started, I think you're optimistic. But it's almost like a young guy coming into the NFL. The game goes too fast for them."
Two of the primary issues on the table during the negotiations between the parties involve money. There are currently 119 part-time NFL referees, who are paid an average of $8,000 per week. According to several reports, the focal point of the disconnect involves the initial pay increases for NFLRA members. The NFL has offered increases ranging from 5 to 11 percent, while the NFLRA is seeking an increase closer to 20 percent. The sides are reportedly about $16 million apart on a multiyear deal.
Brian Frederick is executive director of Sports Fans Coalition, the largest nonprofit fan-advocacy organization in the country. He said the salary differences were drastic for referees working other professional sports and those officiating in the NFL, which is the most profitable league in America. Fredrick's research showed that an NFL official would make $42,000 after being in the league for five years. But a fifth-year Major League Baseball umpire makes $141,000, while an NBA official with the same tenure earns $128,000.
Frederick said the difference in games played didn't matter when it came to player salaries. For example, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees earns more than Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant for playing in significantly fewer games.
Another issue the NFL is no stranger to when it comes to controversy is pensions. The league seeks to do away with the traditional pension model under the previous agreement with the NFLRA, freezing pensions and eventually terminating them in favor of a defined-contribution model ranging between $16,000 and $23,000 per year.
The NFL cites how the economic climate has changed dramatically since the agreement in 2006 and that corporate America and many NFL teams have moved to the defined-contribution model. The NFLRA is not biting on this proposed item, instead working to protect the retirement packages the union has as part of its previous deal, from six years ago.
The NFL and the NFLRA broke off talks on Sept. 1 after a third day of meetings failed to produce any results. The longer the NFL uses replacement officials, the greater the risk to the integrity of the game. In the long run, the fans may suffer the most.
Posted Sept. 4, 2012