- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

The NFL last night locked out its game officials, marking the league's first work stoppage of any kind since 1987. Replacement officials will begin work today, and with the dispute between the league and the NFL Referees Association now white-hot, a continuation into the regular season appears likely.
The league's decision came after commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Tom Condon, chief negotiator for the NFLRA, met for more than two hours yesterday morning in Dallas and again failed to reach an agreement. The pair also logged an unsuccessful four-hour negotiation Monday night, with Tagliabue skipping the Dallas-Oakland preseason game in Mexico City. The Dallas meetings had been intended to end a contract battle that has festered since their previous labor agreement expired in March.
"We have worked intensively to reach an agreement," Tagliabue said in a statement. "But we have a duty to our fans and teams, and we cannot go into the regular season with the threat of a sudden work stoppage by our game officials. Despite our efforts, we remain far apart, and the officials' negotiators have repeatedly refused to consider a no-strike, no-lockout agreement with the NFL covering the 2001 season."
The 120 replacements refs, culled from NFL Europe, the Arena Football League and college ranks, will work their first games tomorrow, including the Washington Redskins' preseason game at New England. The league made its decision last night so the replacements could have one day to prepare for the preseason games. The regular season begins Sept. 9.
The NFLRA seeks an increase of 400 percent more than salaries that currently range from $21,000 per year for first-year officials to $69,000 for senior crew members. The NFL is offering an immediate 40 percent raise with a 100 percent boost by 2003. A new union proposal yesterday shaved 40 percent off their original demand, but the league still found the offer far too high.
The two sides have a wide monetary gulf between them, but the core issue of dispute is the nature of the job itself. The league considers the 119 game officials part-time employees with virtually no in-week or offseason responsibilities, and most of them hold other full-time jobs.
The NFLRA, however, says its members often log more than 2,000 work hours per year, the equivalent of 50 40-hour work weeks a year, and thus are entitled to be paid commensurate to full-time officials in other major sports. A senior-level official in the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball makes more than $235,000 a year.
"We reviewed their offer and thought their offer was inappropriate and didn't address the contribution that the officials make to the game," Condon told the Associated Press.
NFL officials have never had a work stoppage. Labor disputes have been more common in the other major team sports, and baseball umpires have had four work stoppages since 1979. The leagues, however, have usually prevailed in these disputes.
The lockout also represents the first work stoppage in Tagliabue's largely successful 12-year reign. During the period, the league and its teams have exponentially increased TV and stadium revenues, added four franchises, developed legions of new fans around the globe, and most importantly, supplanted both baseball and basketball as America's favorite spectator sport.
"This is quite a game of brinksmanship," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago sports consultant who frequently works with NFL teams. "The refs may be drastically overplaying their hand when you consider that nobody in any industry gets a 400 percent raise straight away. But when you also consider the aggregate amount of money potentially at question [between $10 million and $15 million], it's not that much in the grand scheme of the NFL.
"It's not implausible to think a deal could happen by the opener, but both sides have clearly dug in their heels," Ganis said.
The NFL Players Association, meanwhile, expressed serious concern about the potential safety risks brought on by replacement game officials. The union sent letters Monday to each team's player representative asking them to discuss the safety risks with their teammates. The NFLPA's no-strike, no-lockout clause in its labor agreement with the league, however, prevents any walkout by the players.
"The players are not happy about this by any stretch of the imagination," said Richard Berthelsen, the NFLPA's general counsel. "The pace of play is much faster than anywhere these replacements are coming from, and there are many, many differences in rules between the NFL or any other league. Many of these rules target player safety, so if they're not applied correctly, there is clearly a heightened risk.
"Let's put it this way: if I were a quarterback or a defensive end, I wouldn't want to play this weekend," Berthelsen said.

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