|NFL Referees Association president Scott Green says the league is putting the game's integrity at risk. (AP)|
NEW YORK -- The NFL's on-field officials say the league is paying lip service to player safety by contacting replacement officials.
They also believe the NFL planned to lock them out rather than negotiate a new contract. Members of the NFL Referees Association were locked out June 3 after talks broke down.
NFLRA president Scott Green and past president Ed Hochuli, both current referees, said Wednesday the NFL is jeopardizing the safety of the players, as well as the integrity of the game, by considering using officials they feel are unqualified. None of those officials will come from the top college division because they all are barred from accepting NFL jobs by the colleges, Green said.
"To take seven officials who have not worked Division I [college] games or not worked the last several years," he said, "and to put them on the field has got to be pretty unsettling not only to the players and coaches, but to the fans.
"The players have plenty of things to worry about on the field, they don't need to be worrying about the officials."
Green said players know the current officials are consistent in their calls, but won't have any idea "what will be called or seen and what won't be, and that will be a product of how the game is being affected."
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Added Hochuli: "There is no game if the competitive nature of the game is not being controlled" by officials.
The NFL disagreed, saying in a statement:
"Our goal is to maintain the highest quality of officiating for our teams, players, and fans, including proper enforcement of the playing rules and efficient management of our games.
"We are confident that these game officials will enforce rules relating to player safety. Contrary to NFLRA leadership, we do not believe that players will 'play dirty' or intentionally break the rules."
Dr. Thom Mayer, the NFL Players Association's medical director, met Tuesday with the officials to discuss their situation and its potential impact on the players' safety.
"I don't know how to look at the type of officials they are talking about using and not raise the issue of if there will be health and safety issues," Mayer told the Associated Press on Wednesday. "We will be monitoring that closely during the preseason."
Hochuli, perhaps the best-known NFL ref, said the 121 officials who are locked out are training on their own, including hours of video work and taking rules tests.
"When the lockout ends -- and we know it will end -- we'll be ready to take the field the next day," Hochuli said. "But just like the players, whose preseason helps get the mistakes out before the season starts, if there is no preseason [for the officials], there will be mistakes that will happen, just like with the players."
The players were locked out for 4½ months last year before getting a 10-year contract.
"Lockout seems to be their negotiating strategy with everyone," Green said. "We don't want to be locked out. We want to get back to the table and get this resolved."
The league responded that it began the process of hiring replacements when the officials told the NFL of their intention to authorize a strike.
"We have great respect for our officials and in keeping with that view have made a proposal that includes substantial increases in compensation for all game officials," the NFL's statement said. "We have negotiated in good faith since last October. We accepted the union's suggestion that we involve federal mediators in the negotiations.
"We are available to meet with the NFLRA at any time to negotiate a new contract."
No talks are scheduled.
The officials say their wage offer was for a smaller increase than they received in the collective bargaining agreement that expired in May. They said it would cost each of the 32 teams $100,000 per year to meet that proposal.
The NFL has called its offer to the officials a fair one, noting it includes a seven-year deal with annual compensation increases of between 5 and 11 percent. According to the league, an official in his fifth season earned an average of $115,000 in 2011 and would earn more than $183,000 in 2018 under its proposal.
The officials also cite as issues higher wages for their peers in the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, and the loss of a pension system established in 1974 and administered by the NFL until it was recently frozen, then eliminated.
"No game official will lose any vested pension benefit under our proposal and the clubs will fully fund all pension obligations," the league said.
The NFL used replacement officials for the opening weekend of the 2001 season. Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a new CBA soon was reached.
But many of the officials used 11 years ago had worked at the highest college level, and the NFLRA says the officials being interviewed now aren't nearly as experienced.
"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."