NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith called the league's lockout of officials "absurd" and would not rule out a players strike.
In a recent interview with SI.com, Smith cited widespread concerns over players' long-term health, claiming that replacement referees have created an environment that jeopardizes player safety.
"In America it is the employer's obligation to provide as safe a working environment as possible," Smith told the website. "We believe that if the National Football League fails in that obligation, we reserve the right to seek any relief that we believe is appropriate. The NFL has chosen to prevent the very officials that they have trained, championed and cultivated for decades to be on the field to protect players and -- by their own admission -- further our goal of enhanced safety. That is absurd on its face."
Despite receiving vocal support from commissioner Roger Goodell, replacement referees have been criticized throughout the preseason. Smith blamed the NFL for the impasse with the officials, claiming that the league has prioritized financial concerns over player safety.
"There are really three fundamental facts that are inescapable," Smith said. "One, the players and the league have made tremendous strides in trying to make the game safer over the last three years. The second fact is, at the players' urging, the National Football League last year gave the referees more power to spot and deal with a concussed or injured player. The third inescapable fact is, over the last 20 years the league has done everything to maintain an experienced referee corps.
"When you look at the referees combined, you're talking about nearly 1,500 years of NFL experience. The National Football League puts such an emphasis on experience that in normal situations they only introduce a rookie referee into the league with a team of experienced officials. All three of those things are unassailable facts, so given those three facts why would anyone choose to break away from the one new referee with a team of experienced referees and go to a full slate of new referees? The only conclusion that I have is that the league cares more about money than it does about the experience of the referees as a vehicle to increase player safety."
The league and the NFL Referees Association have yet to reach an agreement, prompting Goodell to acknowledge last week that using replacement referees for regular-season games is a realistic possibility.
Goodell said last Thursday that the replacement officials will do "a very credible job" if needed in the regular season and describes the NFL's differences in negotiations with the NFLRA as "philosophical."
Officials probably need a week to 10 days to prepare for the season, Goodell said, and the regular-season opener between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys is one week away. The first full Sunday of games is Sept. 9.
NFLRA lead negotiator Mike Arnold said Thursday that officials have been training on their own during the lockout and would need less than a week to prep.
With the start of the regular season looming, Smith claimed that the players are seriously concerned about their on-field safety with replacement referees officiating the games.
"We've been very public in saying that we believe on a scale of 1-10, the use of replacement referees in the preseason is a 12," he said. "That goes up to a 16 now that you're entering into the regular season.
"Obviously the game is going to speed up, the demand on the referees increases, the physical strain on our players increases exponentially, and you're facing a situation where the league has made an affirmative decision to remove the people that we consider to be the first responders to safety on the field. It's rather obvious that the only people on the field who are not competing, who remain objective to enforce the rules, to ensure that the players remain safe, are the referees."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.