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Report: NFL preparing to use replacement officials in 2012 if labor dispute continues

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer
The NFL's got another labor dispute on its hands: the NFL Referees Association and the NFL's labor agreement expired at the end of 2011 and the two sides have reached an impasse. And according to a report, the NFL is preparing to move forward with replacement officials.

Alex Marvez of FOXSports.com has obtained a letter from the NFL to its officiating-scouting department asking them to look at potential replacements for the current group of NFL referees in the event a labor agreement isn't reached.

"Negotiations are ongoing, and should the two sides reach an agreement in the near future, there will be no need to hire additional officials," Ron Baynes, NFL director of recruiting officials, wrote in the letter, per Marvez. "This is a contingency plan to make sure the NFL season will continue on schedule as planned."

According to Marvez, Baynes said to target recently retired college officials, "lower-division college, professional league and semi-professional league officials whose window of opportunity for advancement has pretty much closed but who have the ability to work higher levels but just got overlooked."

By preparing to hire replacement officials, the league is sending a pretty clear-cut message to the current crop of refs: if you push your luck, we're not afraid to trot out our backups. The NFL previously did this in 2001 as a temporary solution for the end of the preseason and beginning of the regular season until a labor agreement was reached.

But the league also said it remains "optimistic" that an agreement will be reached prior to the beginning of 2012.

“Our negotiations with the referees association are continuing and we are optimistic that there will be a successful resolution,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Marvez Wednesday.

What will make this potential standoff interesting is the response from fans. My best guess is that, leading up to the season, fans would say things like "How can they be any worse?" when discussing replacement referees. (Not all fans, but you'll hear a lot of that, I guarantee.)

The reality is that officiating can get worse, and likely will if replacement referees are used. So the leverage in these negotiations could have an interesting shift if and when football actually gets played with backup refs.

And if the NFL's looking for any nominations for possible replacements, I have at least one in-house CBS suggestion.
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