SBD/June 5, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NFL Ends Mediation With Refs; Plans To Hire Replacement Officials By Season's Start

NFL will hire replacement referees for the 121 officials locked out yesterday
The NFL yesterday locked out the NFL Referees Association members, after the union that represents 121 referees and officials made economic demands for more money at a session overseen by mediators from the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, according to NFL Senior VP/PR Greg Aiello. The NFL announced yesterday that it would be hiring replacement referees after the NFLRA CBA expired on May 31 and it failed to reach a deal after 11 formal bargaining sessions, the last two with FMCS mediators. “In our first meeting with the FMCS, the mediators recommended a process to bring the negotiations to what we hoped would be a successful conclusion, and both sides agreed to follow that process,” Aiello said in an e-mail to SportsBusiness Journal. “In addition to the two recent sessions with the federal mediator, we have had nine other bargaining sessions with the union since last October. In our first meeting with the FMCS, the mediators recommended a process to bring the negotiations to what we hoped would be a successful conclusion, and both sides agreed to follow that process. In (Sunday's) session, the NFLRA ignored that process, abandoned positions that it had previously taken with both us and the mediators, and made economic demands totaling millions of additional dollars that they had agreed to drop at earlier sessions. Given the NFLRA’s retreat from the process to which it had agreed, it only took a short time to conclude that the union’s proposal was not intended to move the negotiations forward.”

THE OFFER: Aiello in his e-mail said that the NFL had offered the NFLRA members a seven-year deal with pay increases of between 5-11%. “We did not begin to contact potential replacements until well after the union advised us in March of its intention to take a strike vote and told us of its plan to drag out the negotiations until late summer,” Aiello said. "We obviously could not be put in a position of the union calling a strike once the season had begun. The officials we are hiring are professionals who officiate games at a high level and have backgrounds similar to current NFL officials. We have every confidence that the officials who we bring on will do a fully credible job, and will manage our games efficiently and effectively enforce the playing rules.”

ON STRIKE? NFLRA General Counsel Michael Arnold previously told SportsBusiness Journal that the NFLRA members had not taken a strike vote and wanted to work and were getting ready for the season. But Arnold did not return repeated phone calls and text messages yesterday. FMCS spokesman John Arnold said in an e-mail, "No further meetings have been scheduled at this time. Mediators remain in contact with the parties, and we have no additional comments."

EXPRESSING CONCERN: The NFLPA yesterday issued a statement expressing concern about the NFL’s lockout of the NFLRA and what it might mean for the NFL players. “The NFL Players Association is concerned about the NFL’s decision to lock out professional referees and recruit scabs to serve as referees in NFL games for the 2012 season,” the NFLPA said in a statement. “In 2011, the NFL tasked officials with increased responsibilities in protecting player health and safety, and its search for scabs undermines that important function. Professional athletes require professional referees, and we believe in the NFL Referees Association’s trained first responders. The NFLPA will continue to monitor the league’s actions in this situation” (Liz Mullen, SportsBusiness Journal).

SEEN THIS BEFORE: In N.Y., Bart Hubbuch notes the league “used replacement refs in 2001 for one exhibition game and the first week of the regular season before reaching a deal shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks disrupted play.” That time, things “went smoothly, although one replacement official asked Jerry Rice for his autograph on the field before a game” (N.Y. POST, 6/5). USA TODAY’s Jarrett Bell notes that while replacements would “ensure that games won’t be lost due to a strike by officials, they also will fuel debate” (USA TODAY, 6/5). ESPN's Michael Wilbon said, "The NFL is the most ruthless of all the leagues and if people on Twitter are going crazy now because of the NBA officiating, wait until they get a (look) of replacement officials in the NFL" ("PTI," ESPN, 6/4).

TIME TO TALK: ESPN.com’s Mike Sando wrote there is “plenty of time for a resolution,” and the NFL regular-season opener is “96 days away.” Fans in the past have “seen the NFL and its officials at odds deep into the summer, threatening the regular season before finally reaching agreement in September.” Sando: “There's no need for panic. Replacement refs might do just fine, anyway.” The drop from current officials to replacement officials “would not begin to approach the drop from current players to replacements” (ESPN.com, 6/4). CBSSPORTS.com’s Will Brinson wrote the news of using replacement refs “doesn't have the same pizzazz as the terrifying possibility last summer of football not being played.” Should this impasse continue into the season, it would “take some seriously butchered officiating for fans to clamor for the return of the guys who wore the stripes previously” (CBSSPORTS.com, 6/4). But CSNBAYAREA.com's Ray Ratto wrote the NFL wants to “punish the officials they have, which are presumably the best that can be found, to hire 128 new people who presumably aren’t as good, know the rulebook less than the ones they have now, and in general be worse than what they have -- all in the name of saving money that they are currently swimming in from their victory in the player lockout” (CSNBAYAREA.com, 6/4).
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