NFL officials, locked out in a labor dispute, said competition could get ugly 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 were locked out three days later after the NFL broke off a marathon negotiating session with a federal mediator. The league has since hired replacement officials to work the exhibition season and possibly the regular season.
Officials want better pay and a continuation of their current benefits plan. They say they have been unable to coax the league back to the bargaining table, and have framed the issue as one vital to player health and safety — the hottest topic in today's NFL. The NFL Players Assn., fresh off its labor battle with the league, has backed that stance by referring to officials as "first responders."
Although some might see that as a cynical and convenient position for the officials, others argue games would be significantly more dangerous if the officiating were left to replacements.
According to referee Ed Hochuli, when replacement officials worked games in 2001, they threw between one and five penalty flags per game. He said there were between 12 and 14 penalties called in a typical game last season.
"It's nice when we're not interfering with a game, I think we all would agree with that," Hochuli said. "But we also know that when there are no penalties, there is no game. You've lost the competitive nature of the game if it's not being controlled."
Officials contend the league planned the lockout as part of its negotiating strategy and never put serious effort toward striking a deal before the old one expired.
The NFL disputed that Wednesday in a written statement.
"That is absolutely false," the statement reads in response to the accusation the league is unwilling to negotiate. "We have negotiated in good faith for the past nine months. In addition to two sessions with the federal mediator, we have had nine other bargaining sessions with the union since last October. We are available to meet with the NFLRA at any time to negotiate a new contract."
According to the league, its latest proposal is a seven-year agreement that would run through 2018 and offer annual compensation increases between 5% and 11% for the officials, who are considered part-time employees.
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. An official in his 10th year, who earned an average $139,00 last year, would earn more than $200,000 by 2018.
Hochuli said he's confident that an agreement will be reached and that officials continue to spend many hours a week familiarizing themselves with the rules and honing their craft, but that each week that passes without a deal hurts the game.
"When the lockout ends, we'll be ready to take the field the next day," he said. "But let's not kid ourselves, missing the preseason hurts."