NFL officials, locked out in a labor dispute, said things could get ugly on the field if the league goes ahead with its plan of using replacement officials this season.
"The folks who are going to be on the field are not of NFL quality that coaches, fans and the players are used to seeing," said referee Scott Green, president of the NFL Referees Assn.
The NFL used replacements briefly in 2001 during the exhibition season and for Week 1 of the regular season, but, in the spirit of solidarity and perspective, the labor fight was quickly resolved after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The most recent labor agreement expired May 31, and officials are asking for what they call a modest pay increase and no changes to their current benefit plans.
The NFL has not immediately responded to the conference call, in which representatives of the officials framed the issue as one of player safety -- the hottest topic in today's NFL.
According to the league, its seven-year proposal (through 2018) offered annual compensation increases of 5% to 11%. For example, in 2011 a first-year official made an average of $78,000. Under the league's proposal, he would make more than $165,000 by the end of the new agreement. An official who was in his fifth year in 2011, and earned an average of $115,000 last year, would earn more than $183,000 in 2018.
Officials said the league broke off talks after a 12-hour negotiating session with a federal mediator June 3, locked them out that night, and has not returned to the bargaining table.
“We’re ready to negotiate and willing to get back to the table whenever the NFL is ready,” said Michael C. Arnold, the NFLRA’s lawyer and lead negotiator.
Referee Ed Hochuli said if replacement officials are working the games, players surely will try to get away with infractions that more experienced officials would catch.
"Players know who we are," Hochuli said. "They were kids watching us on TV. There's a certain amount of, 'Hey, I realize Hochuli is watching what I'm doing.' If they've got a high school or junior college official out there, they're going to do more."
It's the position of officials that the NFL is making more money now than ever, and the league should spread the wealth a bit -- or at least not skimp on benefits it had promised. There's no question the officials have a tough job, and they do it well.
That said, downplaying the request for a pay increase because it's smaller than the one officials got in 2006 does not paint them as Norma Rae. Not in this economy. Both sides will have difficulty winning the sympathy of the public -- for whatever that's worth -- in this dispute.