NFL to teams: Replacement refs in place to work regular season

In a Wednesday memo to all teams, NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson outlined just how far the league and the NFL Referees Association are on their current labor impasse, and confirmed that the NFL will indeed use the current crop of replacement officials when the regular season starts on Sept. 5.

From the memo, as first reported by Mike Freeman of CBS Sports, and seen here in HTML format:

In light of the current state of negotiations, we will have replacement crews on the field when the regular season begins.  The replacements have undergone extensive training and evaluation, and have shown steady improvement during the preseason.  We will continue the training with each crew and they will work as much of the regular season as necessary.  The replacement officials are dedicated and enthusiastic, have worked very hard to improve, and have persevered despite the attacks on their qualifications and  performance.  We are all grateful for their service to the NFL.

As part of our effort to support the replacement officials, we will employ procedures similar to those in effect in the postseason.  We will have an officiating supervisor from our staff in the replay booth at each game whose job will be to help ensure correct penalty enforcement,  administration of rules not involving fouls, operation of the game and play clocks, and game  administration.  The supervisor will be able to communicate directly with the alternate official on the sidelines.  The supervisor will not be involved in either the instant replay system or any  judgment made by the officials on the field.  As in all games, the final decision will be made by  the referee on the field and no decision will be revisited or changed once the ball has been  snapped for the next play.

Anderson's memo is disingenuous in many ways.

First, the replacement officials have not undergone "extensive training," unless you consider two months before the preseason and their in-game crash courses in brain surgery extensive. Second, Anderson's jab at those in the media and elsewhere who have criticized the level of officiating is petty and misses the point. These are not "attacks."  They are legitimate concerns about game management and player safety that the NFL seemed to have right up until it decided to lock the "real" officials out.

Third, though the current crop of officials may be "dedicated and enthusiastic," they're also at least two levels in quality down from the officials they're replacing because the high-level collegiate officials and other potential refs in line for such positions have agreed to honor the NFLRA's position and sit this one out. That's how you get guys from the Lingerie Football League, and the Pac-10 (before it was the Pac-12), back when it was the biggest officiating clusterfrank in the game at any level.

"We are not surprised that the NFL was not going to reach out to us," the NFLRA said in a statement. "However, this is consistent with the NFL's negotiating strategy, which has been 'take it or leave it' and lock them out. It now appears the NFL is willing to forego any attempt to reach a deal in the last seven (7) days before opening night. 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 on the reasons for the current labor issues:

We remain apart on economic issues, as well as on fundamental non-economic matters. From an economic perspective, the differences involve both pay and pension.  Our last offer,  tendered to the union prior to the beginning of the lockout, would have given officials significant annual pay increases.  Nonetheless, there remains a considerable gap between us.

The officials continue to insist on larger overall pay increases, as well as greater amounts devoted for nongame compensation, than we consider reasonable in light of economic developments of recent years and compensation trends for other league and team employees.     We also continue to differ on the appropriate retirement arrangements for the officials.

The NFLRA seeks both to retain the current defined benefit pension plan for the current staff for at least another 5-6 years, and to increase the amount of the defined benefit.  We have proposed to freeze the defined benefit plan (preserving all vested benefits for all officials) and replace it with a defined contribution/401(k) arrangement — the same arrangement that is in place for all other league employees and which 13 clubs have adopted.  We have offered a defined contribution that would average $20,000 per year, while the officials' union has proposed a substantially higher amount.

The "in light of economic developments" argument is the same one the NFL tried to use last year after locking out the players, and it makes even less sense this time. The NFLRA seeks a minimal pay increase that would cost each NFL team less than $75,000 per year, according to one report, at a time when pro football has become a virtual license to print money.

Anderson concludes his memo by saying, "We have a substantial difference on operational issues that directly affect the quality of officiating.  One of our key goals in this negotiation is to  enhance our ability to recruit, train, and replace officials who are not performing adequately.  We believe that officials should be evaluated and performance issues addressed in the same way as players, coaches, club management and league staff.   We have proposed several steps to accomplish this, including having a number of full-time officials and expanding the overall  number of officials.  We think these steps, along with improvements in training and evaluation,  an increased emphasis on consistency, and an enhanced ability to bring in new officials when  necessary, will lead to long-term improvements in officiating."

But in the meantime, we're going to give you a bunch of Pop Warner zebras and see how it goes? The message does not compute.

It's possible that this memo is a ploy to get the NFLRA back to the table, but it's more likely that the NFL is simply playing hardball here, assuming that the level and quality of officiating in its games won't be enough of an issue to force a compromise from its end. When the games start to really count, and someone doesn't know where to spot the ball on the field, or what offensive holding looks like, or how to keep fights from happening, we'll see if the league changes its tune.

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