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Expect fill-in referees into regular season



[Editor’s note: Starting with this post, we will be contributing a regular column to the National Football Post. We are pleased to be collaborating with them this season. The National Football Post is a comprehensive source of news and opinion of the many angles of our favorite sport.]

In the history of organized labor, the impasse between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association is unique. Until a collective bargaining agreement is reached, the NFL imposed a lockout that keeps the referees off the field. But, unlike any other work stoppage, the union employees are still working.

Since the NFL is a second job for all of the officials, except for a few who have retired from their other career, the union officials are still guaranteed a paycheck. In this case, a prolonged negotiation does not starve the labor side into an agreement.

The NFLRA declined to comment on the state of the CBA, which expired in the offseason. The NFL similarly would not discuss specifics. “We have great respect for our officials and remain committed to a negotiated resolution,” said NFL spokesman Mike Signora. “We have nothing to add beyond that at this point.”

Until a new CBA is reached, the NFL has replacement crews recruited from the smaller college divisions, the United Football League, Arena Football League, and — in an absurd lack of judgment — the Lingerie Football League.

The two sides have gone a month without meeting. Even if negotiations began in earnest in the next five minutes, we might not see the union officials on the field until October. There are four key disagreements in the proposals, but the core issue is not the salary.

Of course, compensation is on the table, but this element seems resolvable. Judging by the fact that the NFLRA proposal asks for twice the increase of the NFL proposal, it seems that the union might have overinflated their numbers to be able to lower to the NFL proposal in exchange for something else. However, the remaining three issues all feed into how the salaries will be impacted.

The second major issue is the NFL wants to convert the existing pension system into a employee-contributed plan, such as a 401(k). While the specifics have not been released, this could also be negotiable, as it deals strictly with numbers, so the union will look at how much this offsets any proposed increase. The league says the plan is in line with league office personnel, which very clearly ties to the third issue: full-time officials.

The league would like to phase in full-time officials by first having a liaison-type official in each of the seven on-field positions. Then, if the officiating department has an enforcement matter with, say, an aspect of pass interference calls, this could be addressed the full-time field judge, side judge, and back judge with instructions to be filtered down to all in those positions. While the union has not expressed disagreement with full-time referees, the issue becomes handcuffed to the officials’ pension plan. Because full-time officials would be employees in the corporate office, there would be a disparity with the existing employees who do not have a pension plan.

Finally, the NFL has proposed increasing the number of crews from 17 to 20. This, in effect, will give every crew a third and fourth bye week during the season if the additional crews are assigned equally. The NFL has stated publicly that it could use the extra officials to address performance issues midseason. This has a practical effect of suspending officials, and coupled with two less game checks per season, the proposal obviously throws sand in the gears of any negotiation.

There can be some middle ground on the issue of additional crews. In the 2011 season, referees Tony Corrente and Scott Green both had to miss a few games. With only two backup officials (one of whom was injured) and neither one a crew chief, the league pulled referees off of their bye weeks and assigned the Thursday night referees to Sunday games in the same weekend. It is hard to quantify how this affected the officiating in those games, but it certainly would have been better to have an officiating bullpen to draw from.

Given the short timetable (remember, the season begins on a Wednesday this year) the logistics are dictating that there will be at least one game that counts in the standings officiated by replacement referees. The NFL would not say how far out, however, their replacements are committed to.

But one thing is certain. There cannot be an agreement if the parties are never in the same room to negotiate.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)