Friday, July 20, 2012

The ABC's of the Referee Lockout

When the NFL regular season starts the first week in September, there may be a large number of key participants missing from fields all across the league—over 100, in fact.  And they will be sorely missed.  Am I talking about big-name players who might still be holding out because they haven’t gotten the new contracts they want?  Players who have been suspended for their off-the-field conduct in the offseason?  Nope. 

It may be hard to believe, but less than a year after resolving its differences with the players, the NFL is facing yet another labor crisis with the 121 members of the National Football League Referees Association (NFLRA), the men in stripes who officiate the games each week.  As is the case with the players (via the NFL Players Association), the NFL’s officials work for the NFL under the terms of a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), and their most recent CBA expired after the 2011 season.  

Although the two sides had started negotiating the terms of a new CBA in October 2011, no progress was made, leading to mediation.  After just two mediation sessions, however, talks broke off and the NFL issued a “lockout” of the NFLRA on June 3rd—meaning that the officials would not be allowed to conduct any official NFL-related activities.  Showing that they were serious, the NFL further announced that it would start looking for replacement officials (“scabs” in labor parlance) to take the field in the regular season in place of the NFLRA’s members.

How did it come to this?  As you might expect, the point of contention is compensation.  The new CBA proposed by the NFL includes salary increases that are lower than those provided in the previous CBA.  The NFL’s proposal is a seven-year deal with annual pay increases of 5-11 percent.  Under the league’s proposal a fifth-year official, who made $115,000 in 2011, would make over $183,000 in 2018.  Not all officials make six figures, though—first-year officials made an average of $78,000 in 2011.  According to the NFLRA, the increase that the officials have proposed would only cost each of the 32 teams $100,000 per year.  Another issue in the negotiations is the league’s pension plan for officials, which has been in place since 1974. 

Twenty-one year veteran Scott Green is the NFLRA's president (and a D.C. lobbyist)

Either way, the officials certainly aren’t starving, especially when you consider that this is a part time gig for most of them (some, like Ed Hochuli (right), are attorneys).  Their salaries are generally on par with the salaries of officials in other sports, but are lower than some.  NBA officials average between $100,000 and $300,000 annually; Major League Baseball umpires earn about $120,000 a year and NHL referees earn between $110,000 and $255,000. 

Sure, officials in other sports work more games.  The flip side of that, though, is this:  with only 16 games in a football season (and one-game playoff rounds), each call on each play is more critical. Each of the other major sports has its unique challenges for its officials:  the split-second, hair’s breadth calls in baseball; the speed of hockey; and the wide-open, yet close-quarters, playing style of basketball.  However, in football, all of these challenges converge—on each play.

So, why should we care?  There is a real concern that, if the CBA issues aren’t negotiated and the NFL sends replacement officials on the field, the game will experience a big hit in quality and safety.  Even if you’ve been officiating for twenty years, staying at game-ready form takes a lot of preparation and practice (in fact, despite the lockout, NFLRA members have continued to train, study and test on their own time so they will be ready in the event the lockout ends).  Keep in mind that this is a part-time gig for the officials; the training, rules reviews and physical training (yes, it is a physically demanding job) has to be worked into their everyday lives. 

That’s also going to be true of the replacement officials, who also have to learn the nuances of pro rules and mechanics.  Sure, they can hit the books and take tests for that.  A less tangible aspect of the game that they can’t prepare for, however, is the speed of the pro game, which is going to be different from what they are used to—whether that’s college, high school or semi-pro football.

You might remember from my introductory post that I officiated youth football for one season, before my son came along.  Before the season even began, we had three months of training, which involved meeting two to three times a week to learn rules, practice on-field mechanics and take tests.  Again, this was for youth and high school, and we didn't get paid all that much (as a first-year official I think I got $30 a game for youth).  During the season I worked mostly youth games but I also ran the clock for freshman, junior varsity and varsity high school games. 

For one freshman game, the umpire was running late so I took his place.  Since I was used to games where the players were no taller than my armpits, it was a bit of a shock to the system to be on the field with kids that were bigger than me.  For the first half, I really focused on getting my mechanics* right so my inexperience didn't interfere with the flow of the game.  Luckily, umpire was the position I worked the most.  I guess I did OK because they kept me in when the real umpire showed up at halftime.  Still, there had probably been fouls that went unnoticed by me.

I know what you’re thinking—since the league will probably take the replacements from big colleges and universities that spit out pro talent anyway, won’t they be used to the higher level of talent, speed, etc.?  Nope—officials from the top college divisions are actually barred by the colleges from pursuing NFL jobs.  So, the NFL will have to get officials from lower levels in the sport, or ones who officiated at the top schools but who haven’t been active for several years.

It is unavoidable that the on-field action will suffer if a deal can't be reached and replacement officials are called into action.  Mistakes will be made and calls will be missed.  The rhythm and timing of offenses that have come to rely on the seamless procedures of the officiating crews may also be impacted.  It takes years for the NFL officials to earn the respect and credibility of players and coaches (which they do have, despite impressions to the contrary).  New guys will have to start from ground zero to earn that respect. 

Fielding replacement officials will also affect safety.  With the concussion crisis, part of the NFLRA’s offseason preparations has been learning more about concussions, including diagnosing them in players who may be trying to cover symptoms to stay in the game.  Click here to read a article about a seminar put on by the NFLRA’s medical director, Dr. Thom Mayer.  Note his statement on whether he’ll be repeating it for replacement officials:  “I’m not going to talk to a bunch of scabs.” 

As for the players—some have said that the officials will be missed, while others, like Denver Broncos linebacker Joe Mays (right), don't think it matters who will be throwing the yellow flags.  For its part, the NFL Players Association, who went twelve rounds with the NFL last year, issued the following statement:

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.

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.

So, it appears that, for now, union is supporting union (note the use of "scabs"...twice).  However, even if all of the individual players decide that their brothers in stripes are being mistreated, don’t expect to see any of them joining picket lines on September 5th.   

*For a reminder on the umpire's responsibilities, click here.

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