League, refs union go down to the wire

Another year, another lockout.

Just as the NFL locked out the players of the 2011 offseason as a leverage play for a better labor agreement, the league has now locked out the referees for the 2012 preseason and, perhaps, beyond. Although the games on the field are now meaningless -- and at times unwatchable -- the battle between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) takes on more meaning as each week passes.

And now the NFL has announced that it will use replacement officials for Week 1, although, as with everything, that is subject to change should an agreement be reached.

The Rhetoric

We have and will continue to hear both sides posture to win over the hearts and minds of those who choose to take a side in this fight. The NFLRA will continue to point out how poorly the replacement referees are officiating these games, how they do not understand the game's nuances and, most important, how players could get injured because of the replacements' inexperience.

The NFL will continue to counter that -- just as the players do -- the replacements are getting better and are using these games as necessary and invaluable experience to prepare for the season. The spin continues.

The Issues

Like the players’ situation a year ago, it is important to strip away the drama and hyperbole and focus on the issues. This is a negotiation -- no more, no less. And like many negotiations, the sides have appeared to hit their bottom line on the key issues, which are the following:

Pension: The NFL would like to move away from the traditional pension model from the previous agreement, freezing pensions now and eventually terminating them in favor of a defined contribution model ranging between $16,000 to $23,000 per year.

The league points to the changed economic environment since the 2006 agreement (which is the same thing they said about the players’ deal) and the fact that not only much of corporate America but also many of the NFL teams have moved to a defined contribution model.

The NFLRA is naturally resistant to this proposal, trying to protect the solid retirement packages they now have as per the 2006 deal.

Money: When talks broke off, the sides were approximately $16 million apart on a seven-year deal. This appears to be a relatively insignificant number and, as the NFLRA will emphasize, equals a cost of less than $75,000 per year per NFL team.

Reportedly, much of the divide focuses on the initial increases in NFLRA members pay. The NFL has offered increases in the 5 percent to 10 percent range, while the NFLRA is looking for closer to a 20 percent bump in pay.

Full-time: The NFL would like to start with seven full-time officials, one at each of the refereeing positions. The Refs are protective of their present full-time jobs -- some are lawyers, businessmen, etc. -- and would prefer two incomes. And while the NFL emphasizes this is for only seven officials, the NFLRA fears a slow creep into eventually having many full-time officials at salaries far below those of NBA and MLB full-time officials.

Pool: The NFL would like to have a pool of 21 "referees in waiting" -- three full crews -- beyond the existing working crews. Though the NFL touts these "extras" as building up their bench to become stronger and deeper, the NFLRA sees this group as threats to their continued livelihood and security.

Whither the NFLPA?

Where are the players in this fight? Coaches and management are under orders from the league not to comment on the dispute. Players are free to support the locked-out officials, and have with some comments about health and safety. The more interesting question, though, is whether the players’ and NFLPA’s support for the locked out officials consists of more than words.

And what type of support could the NFLPA and the players offer more than words? That ship might have sailed. The players cannot strike -- as per a No-Strike/Lockout clause of the CBA. However, the NFLPA knew the NFL-NFLRA agreement was ending after the 2011 season. And the NFL, in the interests of making a deal and protecting its own liability, was willing to give to the players on health and safety measures during the CBA negotiations. It is, of course, hindsight, but what if the NFLPA had demanded that -- along with reduced time in the offseason and less padded practices -- the players never be exposed to replacement referees? That would have been a reasonable request by the players to the NFL and, of course, would have given the now-locked-out referees some leverage in their current battle with the league.

What will happen? One of my mantras is "deadlines spur action." The now-dormant talks between the two sides will pick up very soon. I am not sure if the deadline for either side is this week, next week or into the early season, but I am sure both sides have a time in mind that is a point of reckoning.

My sense is that the NFL will be able to achieve its negotiating goals, albeit phased in through the life of a new seven-year CBA. And I sense the NFLRA will choose -- reluctantly, in the face of the season starting -- to sacrifice in future seasons in order to have a present one.

I still believe this labor dispute will end on or around Labor Day. And like many of the players now playing the preseason, the replacement referees will be released soon.