The labor dispute between the NFL and its game officials is poised to spill over into the regular season. In a memo to its teams Wednesday, the league said it intends to open the season next week with replacement officials working the games.
Whether the NFL is convinced that a compromise cannot be reached by next week or whether the memo was part of a bargaining strategy was not clear, but the language from both sides was firm.
“In light of the current state of negotiations, we will have replacement crews on the field when the regular season begins,” Ray Anderson, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post and other media organizations. “The replacements have undergone extensive training and evaluation, and have shown steady improvement during the preseason.
“We will continue the training with each crew, and they will work as much of the regular season as necessary. The replacement officials are dedicated and enthusiastic, have worked very hard to improve, and have persevered despite the attacks on their qualifications and performance. We are all grateful for their service to the NFL.”
The referees association issued a written statement in which it said it was “not surprised” by the league’s plans.
The referees’ statement also said: “This is consistent with the NFL’s negotiating strategy which has been ‘take it or leave it’ and lock them out. It now appears the NFL is willing to forego any attempt to reach a deal in the last seven . . . days before opening night.
“It is unfortunate because the Referees want to get back on the field. Our members have been engaged in extensive preparations and are ready to go. If the NFL is serious about negotiating, we are ready, but we can’t negotiate with ourselves.”
Replacement officials have worked the preseason games while members of the NFL Referees Association have been locked out by the league.
The NFL regular season begins Wednesday night with the New York Giants playing host to the Dallas Cowboys in a nationally televised game. The Washington Redskins open the season Sept. 9 at New Orleans.
The league, which said in its memo that “no discussions are currently scheduled,” has defended the work of the replacement officials during the preseason even as the quality of the officiating has been sharply criticized by some players, the NFL Players Association and many media observers.
Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said earlier this week that he likens the work of the replacement officials to the play of NFL rookies adjusting to the pro game.
“When you have a group of rookies doing a job, they’re obviously going to make mistakes,” Alexander said. “They’re going to continue to get better. . . . When you have rookies that are playing on our football team, they have to get caught up to speed. They make mistakes. But they have veterans to lean on. The only thing with these guys, they don’t have any veteran officials to kind of ask, ‘How do I call this? What do I look at? What’s the best position to be in?’ So they’re kind of learning on their own, learning by mistakes.”
Former NFL wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, now an NFL analyst for NBC, said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday: “My concern is the referees, the replacement refs, get too cautious. In other words, the easiest way for them to disappear is to keep the flag in their pocket. I think even the players are starting to get a little sense of that right now, maybe they can push the envelope just a little bit more than what they’ve done in the past. If that’s the case, maybe we get games that are a little more aggressive than what we’d see otherwise.”
Anderson’s memo to the NFL teams said there is “a considerable gap” in the negotiations between the league and the referees association on economic issues, including pay and pension. There also are differences on non-economic issues, Anderson wrote, that include proposals by the league to increase the number of officials and make some officials full-time employees.
Staff writer Rick Maese contributed to this report.
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