NFL referee lockout drags on: 4 issues keeping replacement refs on the field

The NFL and union referees remain far apart on reaching a deal, a source said Friday. That means the NFL replacement referees have entered their third week of the regular season, and calls for their removal have become deafening as the regular union officials remain locked out . Here are the issues stalling negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Referees' Association and subjecting  NFL fans to a litany of reversed calls, long games (the first quarter of Monday night’s Falcons/Broncos game took over an hour and a half), red-faced coaches, and borderline brawls.

1.Retirement benefits

Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith argues for a pass interference call on a play involving wide receiver Roddy White, center, with a replacement referee during the second half of a Monday night game against the Denver Broncos in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/AP)

Proposed changes to the way NFL referees receive their retirement benefits are at the core of the lockout, and neither the league nor the refs are backing down. In an open letter released Tuesday, NFLRA Union Chief Tim Millis outlined the impasse:

“Every current NFL official was hired by the NFL with the promise of a defined-benefit pension package,” Millis wrote.  “All of these officials and their families have made important life-planning decisions based on this benefit promise. The NFL now wants to break the promise by eliminating that benefit; instead, turning to an inferior defined-contribution plan. I call that plan inferior because the League’s offer would reduce their funding obligation for the plan by some 60%, and at the same time transfer long-term investment risk to the individuals (each official).”

In plain English: the defined pension plan gives retirees a stable, fixed income, regardless of the paying company’s performance. The 401(k) plan gives employees a portion of their paycheck to invest for retirement, shifting the risk to the employee.

Many companies in the private sector have made this shift, especially as profit margins become unstable. But the NFLRA and Millis argue, rightly,  that the NFL is only growing more profitable: The league netted about $9 billion in revenue last year, and the average team is worth $1.1 billion. That trend shows no sign of reversing itself as the league continues its dominance of the American sports landscape.

The NFL, which has shifted its other employees to a defined contribution/401(k) plan, sees the change as more than fair. In a memo released after the Sept. 2 labor talks, the NFL noted that under the proposed deal (pre-lockout) a league official working at least 20 years could make “as much as $160,000 in additional compensation or retirement contributions for each official.  

The referees would accept the change, but only if all currently employed officials could remain under the old plan, a proposal rejected by the league. If any one issue will keep the replacements on the field, it’s this one.

Salary

Arizona Cardinals tackle Adam Snyder, right, and Seattle Seahawks defensive back Jeron Johnson are separated by an official during the first half of their Sunday afternoon game in Glendale, Ariz. (Paul Connors/AP/File)

There are 121 union referees in the NFL, and they share a total annual salary pool of $18 million. That shakes out to about $150,000 per year, on average – a number the NFL Referees’ Union would like to see increase. “The two sides have narrowed the gap on overall compensation. It is a gap that could be closed with some minor concessions by both sides,” Millis writes.

When the NFL and the referees’ union spoke two weeks ago before the regular season began, the NFL offered to add another $1 million to the refs’ salary pool, increasing average yearly pay to around $189,000 by 2016.

Making six figures to roam the sidelines at 16 or so football games per year might seem like a cushy gig, but watching the replacement refs on the field has proven it to be anything but. It’s tough. Skirmishes between plays have become a common sight in the season’s first two weeks; at  one point during the Monday night game in Atlanta, both the Bronco and Falcon benches cleared in what threatened to become a baseball-style brawl. We’d see a lot less of such behavior under the union refs, who are used to players and coaches yelling in their faces and threatening to get physical. They aren’t afraid of it; the replacements are.

What’s more, NFL referees spend years training before they take the field, and spend major chunks of their offseasons studying up on new rules, watching game film, and training (just like the players and coaches). “These professional game officials — noted until this season by the NFL as being 'the best in sports,' have spent years honing their skills, just like the athletes starring on the field,” Millis writes.

Extra officiating crews

Referees talk during the in the first half of the game between the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks in Seattle. The NFL wants to add extra officiating crews, something that the NFLRA opposes. (Kevin P. Casey/AP/FIle)

In order to reduce the strain and travel schedule of the existing referees, the NFL wants to add more. Currently, there are 17 officiating crews – one for each possible game per week, plus one alternate. The NFL wants to add three, bringing the total to 20 crews and 140 referees. This would improve the quality officiating, they say, because it would allow them to groom more refs, root out officials who are performing poorly, and ease rookie refs into NFL officiating. The referees feel their pay, and job security, would be affected.

Full time vs. part time

Referees signal a made field goal during the first half of an NFL football game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears last week in Green Bay, Wis. (Jeffrey Phelps/AP/File)

Current league officials only work part time for the NFL, and most have other jobs. But the league wants to hire a corps of seven full-time officials (one for each refereeing position) to train recruits, scout, and do other things referees do, but year round. 90 percent of the union referees oppose this, not wanting to leave their other jobs and the money they provide. The NFLRA has said that they don’t totally oppose the idea of full time refs, but, again, they feel their pay might be inadequate.