The National Football League Players Association, a year removed from being locked out by NFL owners, is monitoring the NFL’s current lockout of the league’s officials for its ramifications on player safety, the union’s top official told ThinkProgress. And as officials attempt to end their dispute with the league before the start of the regular season next week, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said the union reserved the right to examine “every possible remedy” to ensure the safety of its players.
The use of replacement officials, Smith said, “flies in the face” of the players’ efforts to make the game safer during their own negotiations, which resulted in a lockout by NFL owners, before the 2011 season. “The issues that we, the players, pushed hard for in the collective bargaining agreement were structural, fundamental changes in the way football is played,” Smith said. “All that flies in the face of a unilateral decision to prevent the most experienced on-field first responders from being involved in an incredibly physically challenging activity.”
Nevertheless, the NFL is prepared to use replacement officials to start the season, according to a memo obtained by CBS reporter Mike Freeman that the league circulated to all 32 teams today. “[W]e will have replacement crews on the field when the regular season begins,” the memo reads. “The replacements have undergone extensive training and evaluation, and have shown steady improvement during the preseason.” That improvement hasn’t been evident — the officials have been openly questioned by players and have struggled with routine duties like marking off yardages and correctly identifying teams.
The lack of experience of the replacements is of major concern to the players. NFL officials combined have nearly 1,500 years of professional experience, Smith said, while the replacements pale in comparison. NFL officials are required to have at least 10 years of experience, including five at the top collegiate or other professional levels, a requirement many of the replacements don’t meet. “Should we really be content with caretakers whose experience is on the high school and Lingerie Football League level?” Smith asked.
The biggest issue for the NFLPA, which, under Smith’s leadership, has openly supported hotel workers and other workers involved in labor disputes, is ensuring that its players operate in a safe working environment. There is a “real obligation of every employer in this country to provide employees with as safe a working environment as possible,” Smith said. “To me it’s impossible for the National Football League to say they are doing that if they choose to remove the most experienced referees from the field.”
Asked for specifics on what action the union may take if the league doesn’t settle its dispute with the professional officials, Smith declined to answer, saying only that the NFLPA was “looking at every possible remedy.”
A deal to end the lockout doesn’t seem imminent, as the NFL has refused to go back to the negotiating table with the officials, according to Mike Arnold, the lead negotiator for the National Football League Referees’ Association (NFLRA). “Their view seems to be, ‘If this thing’s going to settle, it’s going to settle on our terms,'” Arnold told ThinkProgress. “We think it’s been pretty clear that their negotiating strategy from day one has been to lock us out. In March of 2010, we sent a letter asking to negotiate. They never responded. They said they’d get something together, then they never did. That was a sign that they were going to lock us out.”
The NFL is seeking changes to the compensation and pension plans its officials, who work as part-time employees, receive. But the offers from the NFLRA, including a proposal to grandfather in a 401(k) retirement program to replace the current pensions, have fallen flat. When it comes to compensation, the two sides don’t appear that far apart: Arnold said the union and league offers differ by $16.5 million over the 5-year collective bargaining agreement. That breaks down to roughly $100,000 per season — or a little more than $6,000 a game — for each of the league’s 32 teams. “We’re talking peanuts,” Arnold said, noting that since the last CBA was signed in 2006, NFL revenues have grown from $6.5 billion per year to $9.3 billion.
When I read Arnold’s numbers to Smith, he said, “If $100,000 per team is the only thing that’s keeping the best referees off the field and maintaining the gold standard in on-field health and safety, the National Football League should be ashamed of itself.”
The NFL, for its part, did not mention the compensatory differences in its memo to teams, instead focusing on the pension dispute and “operational differences” related to hiring and evaluation. The league did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s quite clear, from the memo and from the NFL’s actions to this point, that the league has embraced the tried-and-true corporate strategy of locking out its workers and then attempting to wait them out, hoping to settle on its own terms. The easiest way out now, it seems, is for officials to abandon their fight, but Arnold made it sound as if the NFLRA is prepared to continue waiting for the NFL to negotiate. “They locked us out. We’ve been serious, made major concessions, and have been willing to negotiate. But all they’ve told us is to take it or leave it,” Arnold said. “It takes two sides to negotiate. We’re prepared, we’re ready to go.”
As for the players set to take the field with replacement referees next week, the future remains unclear.