On Wednesday, the NFLRA (National Football League Referees Association) held a press conference via conference call with selected media members throughout the country. I was lucky enough to have been invited to join in on the address concerning the NFLRA and how the group is handling the referee lockout.
The presser was organized and driven by the NFLRA’s legal counselor and lead negotiator, Mike Arnold. He didn’t waste much time, getting down to business with several introductions including current NFLRA President Scott Green, former president Ed Hochuli and NFLRA executive director Tim Millis. Arnold then proceeded to walk us through a timeline of events that led to the current lockout, and the format in which the presser would be conducted.
“We reconvened on short notice on June 3, 2012, again under a federal mediator to focus on our economic issues. This was a Sunday Session, and again the NFL did not modify its proposal,” Arnold said. “However, we spent some substantial time and effort developing a revised economic proposal which significantly reduced our demand. We presented our revised proposal in writing to the NFL and after a five-minute break, they told us they had no interest in discussing our revised proposal, and walked out of the negotiations. At midnight that night, June 3, they locked us out.
“We have concluded based on these sequences of events that the lockout was predetermined and was actually the NFL’s negotiating strategy. We want to get back to work, and we want to reach a fair agreement. We filed an unfair labor practice charge in mid- to late June, primarily because they sent letters in early June and mid-June directly to our membership which contained a lot of false and misleading financial information and inaccurate representation of the proposal that they actually made to the negotiating committee at the negotiating table. We thought that was improper, illegal and they should not be allowed to bypass the NFLRA, the negotiating representatives of our memberships.”
According to the NFLRA, the NFL is proceeding with the procurement of “scabs,” or replacement officials, and started collecting applications soon after the lockout begin.
“What we know is they have conducted a couple camps or clinics – whatever you want to call them – in Dallas and Atlanta,” Arnold said. “This is actually the week our officials usually attend an annual clinic to begin formal preparation for the season; however, obviously that is not happening this year due to the NFL’s lockout.”
The Associated Press obtained this response statement from the NFL: “Our goal is to maintain the highest quality of officiating for our teams, players, and fans, including proper enforcement of the playing rules and efficient management of our games. We are confident that these game officials will enforce rules relating to player safety. Contrary to NFLRA leadership, we do not believe that players will ‘play dirty’ or intentionally break the rules.”
The NFL went on to say that it began the process of hiring replacements when the officials told the NFL of their intention to authorize a strike.
“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,” the NFL’s statement read. “We have negotiated in good faith since last October. We accepted the union’s suggestion that we involve federal mediators in the negotiations.”
Both Hochuli and Green spoke yesterday and sent shots across the bow, stating the NFL is jeopardizing the safety of the players, as well as the integrity of the game, by considering using officials who are not qualified to officiate at the professional level. The NFL will not get the NCAA’s top officials because it have been given an ultimatum of sorts – you’re with us, or you’re against us.
“We take a great deal of pride in our professionalism and integrity,” Hochuli said. “I’m proud to say while the league shut us down from all the communication and training in May, our guys have picked it up and done it ourselves. We’re actually doing more training ourselves – far more tests, far more conference calls, far more video review – than we ever received from the league in my 23 years in the NFL. Rules, most people have no idea how complicated the NFL rules are and how different they are from high school or college. For 10 months out of the year I spend one hour a day, seven days a week, studying rules.”
Green added, “You don’t become an NFL referee based on a few days of training. This takes many years to get to this point. Most of our guys have worked 15 to 18 years to climb the ladder through junior high school, high school, Division III, Division II, Division I-AA and eventually Division-I.”
Once the replacement officials overcome the experience hurdle, they would go through a battery of tests including an extensive background check, financial security check and then a physical, as do the NFL referees each and every year, in order to meet the physical requirements and demands placed on their bodies every season.
“The NFL would never, ever put more than one rookie official on a crew,” Green later clarified. “In your rookie season you would be surrounded by six veteran officials, and you would be working in your first and second year in that situation for obvious reasons. That is the time period you learn the game, the rules inside and out, and build relationships with players and coaches that you would not have at that point of time of your career.”
Green also admitted that the idea of taking seven guys, most of whom have never even made it to the top ranks of college football, and getting them ready for the regular-season opener in New York should be a little unsettling for coaches and players.
Still, the NFLRA is adamant that it will be ready once the lockout is lifted. It currently administers rules tests once per week, and began doing so in mid-May. When it comes to video, the NFLRA has created its own method of distribution: studying 2011 NFL film and comparing notes once a week on holding calls, roughing the passer infractions, etc. The group also stages weekly national conference calls to discuss new rules, mechanics and video.
Looking from the outside in and listening while gathering information, the battle between the NFLRA and NFL seems to be concentrated on the “defined benefit” pension plan, which was frozen and eliminated. The league wants to implement a 401(k) plan instead.
Arnold made reference that the wage proposal to the NFL was for a lesser increase than the NFLRA received in the collective bargaining agreement that expired in May, saying “it would cost each of the 32 teams $100,000 per year to meet that proposal, 35/100ths of a percent of the NFL total revenue.” He also mentioned the NFLRA’s modest increases in salary compared to other major sports (MLB, NHL, NBA).
The NFL has called its offer to the officials a fair one, noting it includes a seven-year deal with annual compensation increases of between 5 and 11 percent. As told by the league and reported by the Associated Press, an official in his fifth season earned an average of $115,000 in 2011 and would earn more than $183,000 in 2018 under the new proposal.
“No game official will lose any vested pension benefit under our proposal and the clubs will fully fund all pension obligations,” the league told the Associated Press.
As training camps get ready to start in less than a week, the NFL brand is dealing with a certain amount of tarnish that has built up over the past five months. This started with the Saints’ bounty scandal and moved on to the arrests of 24 players (at the time of this writing). In some cases, players were arrested multiple times for the same offense, whether that was DUI, marijuana possession or misdemeanor family violence.
The publicity surrounding one of the most eventful offseasons in league history was not positive. In addition, it buried the fact the fact that the NFL had locked out 121 men who exude professionalism and enforce on-field adherence to the rules, upholding the sport’s integrity and ensuring its players’ safety for the millions of adoring viewers everywhere. If the real NFL referees miss the Dallas Cowboys traveling to play the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the regular-season opener, it will be a serious black eye for the league. Because the game is played in the backyard of the league’s main office, with 30 other teams and the nation watching, I think they will figure out a way to avoid that black eye.