Representatives for locked out NFL referees said it’s clear that the league is copying pages from the playbook it used last year with the players.
“Lockout seems to be their negotiating strategy with everybody,” Michael Arnold, lead negotiator for the National Football League Referees Association, said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
The NFL locked out the referees on June 3 after the two sides failed to come to a new agreement. The league is currently preparing to move forward with replacement referees and Arnold said the NFL is running "scab clinics" this week.
“We think this is an unfortunate move at a time when player safety and those types of issues are of such paramount importance,” Arnold said. “We want to reach a fair agreement and want to get back to work.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy called allegations that a lockout was the league’s predetermined strategy “absolutely false.”
“We have negotiated in good faith for the past nine months,” McCarthy said in an email to FOXSports.com. “In addition to two sessions with the federal mediator, we have had nine other bargaining sessions with the union since last October. We are available to meet with the NFLRA at any time to negotiate a new contract.”
The two sides haven’t had a negotiating session since the lockout began and none are currently scheduled. There appears to be a real possibility that the NFL could move forward with the replacement referees like the league did in 2001. In that season, replacement refs were used for final week of the preseason and Week 1 of the regular season before an agreement was reached.
“We only began the process of hiring replacements when the NFLRA told us of its intention to have its members authorize the union leadership to call a strike,” McCarthy said. “In order to ensure that there is no disruption to NFL games this season we began last month hiring and training replacement officials. We have made substantial investments in training despite the efforts of the NFLRA to denigrate the replacements and disrupt the training process.”
Unlike 2001, however, major college football conferences now forbid its referees from working both NCAA and NFL games.
“We don’t have minor leagues, but you could liken that to major college (football),” NFL referee Ed Hochuli said. “It would be like if baseball couldn’t use minor league officials, so they have to go find guys who aren’t in the minors.”
Just like last year’s nearly five-month lockout of the players that truncated training camp by a few days before a new collective bargaining agreement was reached, the holdup with the referees union is mostly over compensation.
Arnold said the NFLRA has told the NFL it would accept “modest increases” in pay.
“Why would an organization with $9.3 billion in revenues which is expected to rise to $12-14 billion in the foreseeable future jeopardize the health and safety of its players and the integrity of the game by hiring scab officials? “ Arnold said. “The difference in our compensation request and what they have offered is insignificant when you compare it to (total) revenue.”
The two sides were about $2.2 million apart in the first year of a new contract and total of $16.5 million over the life of the deal, Arnold said. The boost the officials are seeking would equate to about $100,000 per NFL team per season for the life of a new five-year deal.
“We think it’s a reasonable request, especially given the compensation level in other sports,” Arnold said.
The NFL is proposing a seven-year deal that would run through 2018 and offer what it terms is a “healthy annual increase” of between 5-11 percent. For example, a referee with 10 years of experience who made $139,000 last season would earn more than $200,000 at the end of the league’s proposal.
Also, the changes proposed to the pension system for referees — alterations that the NFLRA opposes, at least when it comes to current members — receive at least a $16,000 annual contribution. The NFL said no game official will lose any vested pension under its proposal.
The NFLRA has a lever that it didn’t have the last time it was locked out: increased attention paid to player safety.
“If calls aren’t made, there will be probably additional things going on out on the field,” said Scott Green, NFLRA president and a current NFL referee. “That can potentially lead to a lot of player safety issues. Twenty-five of us were at a player safety forum yesterday and one of the former players said if you’re not calling leg whips or not calling (other illegal hits), it’s going to get a little more nasty in there.”
McCarthy said even with the replacement referees, the goal is to “maintain the highest quality of officiating for our teams, players, and fans.”
“We are confident that these game officials will enforce rules relating to player safety,” McCarthy continued. “Contrary to NFLRA leadership, we do not believe that players will ‘play dirty’ or intentionally break the rules.”
The NFLRA filed an unfair labor practice charge against the NFL with the National Labor Relations Board on June 19. The basis of the claim was the NFL attempted to directly contact current NFL referees with “false and inaccurate information,” Arnold said on Wednesday.
Arnold said the union has provided documents to support that charge, but doesn’t expect a decision by the NLRB anytime soon.