Updated Wednesday, July 18 at 3:15 p.m. ET with statement from the NFL.
Football fans got their fill of lockout talk a year ago, but as we approach the anniversary of the players and owners signing a new 10-year deal to restart football, another important labor dispute remains badly stalled.
The NFLRA, the union representing the league’s officials, has been locked out by the NFL since early June and the two sides have not discussed a new collective bargaining agreement to get them back to work since then. On a conference call, NFLRA officials said that there has been “no indication” that the NFL is willing to return to the negotiating table.
“The lockout seems to be their negotiating strategy with everybody,” NFLRA counsel and lead negotiator Mike Arnold said of the NFL. “(The lockout was) predetermined and was actually the NFL’s negotiation strategy.”
The NFL disputes this claim. In a comment issued to Pro Football Weekly, NFL vice president of communications Michael Signora said, "That is absolutely false. We have negotiated in good faith for the past nine months. We are available to meet with the NFLRA at any time to negotiate a new contract.
"We have great respect for our officials and in keeping with that view have made a proposal that includes substantial increases in compensation for all game officials."
Earlier this month the NFLRA filed an unfair labor practice charge against the league with the National Labor Relations Board, contending that the league sent two letters to the union that “contained inaccurate, false and incomplete information” after talks broke down. The negotiation sessions had gone all the way back to last October.
The league has taken measures in case the two sides cannot come to an accord by the start of the preseason, saying it will hire and train replacement referees. This week the NFL sent out a memo seeking replacement referees, both “recently retired” pro officials and those from lower division colleges, to potentially replace the locked-out NFL regulars.
Also, when asked about the NFL’s camp this weekend in Dallas to scout and train potential replacement refs, the NFLRA referred to them as “scab clinics.” Replacement referees would be unlikely to include Division-I football officials, according to NFLRA executive director Tim Millis; most would be retired referees.
The union says that a slate of first-year officials — of which no more than one typically is on any given crew — would lead to poor health and safety conditions, which has been one of the primary mandates of the Roger Goodell era.
“The folks who are going to be on the field are not of (the) NFL quality that coaches, fans and players are used to seeing,” NFLRA president Scott Green said.
The issues, the NFLRA says, are threefold — pay, pension and protection.
On the financial side of things, Arnold admitted that the two sides are “not far off” with a total difference of about $16 million over the life of a proposed five-year deal. Divided by 32 teams over the course of five years, and it’s a sacrifice of about $100,000 per team per year. According to the NFLRA, the NFL countered with “very modest increases in compensation.”
Where the biggest gap might be is in regard to the pension. The NFLRA wants to grandfather in the pension plan from the previous CBA for its current officials, while the NFL — according to Arnold — wants to freeze then end the plans.
Said Arnold: “We made a substantial concession in an effort to improve the pension issue.”
In previously released documents, highlighted by Signora on Wednesday, the NFL says it believes it has made a fair seven-year offer through 2018, one that offered healthy annual compensation increases of between five and 11 percent.
In the proposal, a first-year official would make more than $165,000 by the end of the agreement. In 2011, the average first-year referee made $78,000. The fifth-year numbers, the NFL says, would go from $115,000 (in 2011) to more than $183,000 in ’18. For 10th-year referees, it would increase from $139,000 in ’11 to more than $200,000 in ’18.
Officials or referees who qualify for postseason games would earn substantially more under the NFL's proposal. The NFL also says it has offered a “defined contribution retirement arrangement” — believed to be a 401k type of plan — under which each official would receive annual contributions starting at $16,500 and increasing to almost $23,000, plus a wide range of investment opportunities. Other offers the NFL says it made include expanded reimbursement for medical insurance costs, other new and increased compensation and one conference call with commissioner Roger Goodell at the start of the season.
The NFLRA further contends that the health and safety of players will be compromised with replacements on the field. The last time there were replacement refs, in Week One of the 2001 season, there were more than two fewer penalties per game than in Week Two of that season once the referees returned to the field. The NFLRA says no replacement refs, to its knowledge, have gone on to full-time careers with the NFL as game officials.
There is no way to tell when the standoff will end, but Arnold contends that “we know we will be back sooner or later." Said Ed Hochuli, a past NFLRA president: “When the lockout ends, we’ll be ready to take the field the next day. But let’s not kid ourselves, missing the preseason (would) hurt.”
The first preseason game is set for August 5 between the Cardinals and Saints in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. The regular season begins Sept. 5 with the Giants at home against the Cowboys — a game that was moved up one day because of the scheduled speech from President Barack Obama at the Democratic Convention.