- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2001

The NFL Referees Association yesterday rejected the league's latest contract offer, leaving replacement game officials in place for this weekend's regular season openers.

The league Wednesday upped its proposal to the game officials, offering to boost salaries 60 percent immediately and double them by 2003. The league previously offered immediate raises of 40 percent and the doubling in two years.

But after a three-hour conference call late Wednesday night, the union's executive committee unanimously rejected the new offer. The game officials are still seeking 400 percent raises, significant improvements to their benefits package and pay equity with officials in the other major team sports. Current salaries range from $21,000 to $69,000 yearly for the part-time positions.

The union's decision extends a league lockout of the officials that began on Aug. 28, and will mark the first time the NFL has used replacement officials for regular season games. It is also the first work stoppage of any kind under the watch of 12-year league commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

"We tried very hard to get a deal done, but in the absence of any other solution, we have no choice but to go forward with the crews we now have," said league spokesman Greg Aiello.

No further discussions between the two sides are planned, and league negotiators do not plan to issue a new counteroffer. A decision on referees for Week 2 of the regular season will be made early next week. But given the resolve of both sides, using the replacements again appears likely. The replacements started work during last weekend's preseason finales.

"The union now has our best proposal," Aiello said.

The union's executive committee did not extend the NFL's new offer to the full membership for a vote.

Both sides have rejected proposed amendments to the collective bargaining process. The league last week unsuccessfully sought to have the union agree to a no-strike, no-lockout clause to keep the officials on the field during talks. And the union could not get NFL approval to bring in an arbitrator.

Tom Condon, chief negotiator for the NFLRA, said the replacement officials last weekend failed to even approach the 99.85 accuracy rate of calls held by the regulars. And as a result, fans should expect a lesser quality of play.

"Any dropoff in the officiating competency is certainly a step away from what the fans are used to," Condon told the Associated Press.

Replacements working into the regular season have already heightened injury concerns among many players. There were no major officiating gaffes during last weekend's preseason finales, all of which were worked by the replacements.

But everyone involved in the NFL readily admits there is a significant difference in the speed and quality of play between preseason and regular season games.

"We're certainly paying close attention to what's happening," said Carl Francis, spokesman for the NFL Players Association.

Others have found no problems with the replacements, largely culled from the college ranks but also from NFL Europe and the Arena Football League. The 120 officials are guaranteed to receive at least $8,000 each for four games work, regardless of when the dispute is settled.

"We've had two separate [replacement] crews for our last preseason game, and there were no complaints from our end, not from players, not from coaches," said Baltimore Ravens president David Modell. "Thankfully, it's been a complete non-issue. It's full speed ahead here.

"This offer is more than fair. I understand they work hard, but they are gainfully employed elsewhere and should be. If we start paying 20-year officials $250,000 a year, there's going to be a rush of scouts and assistant coaches heading for the door. Why would they work 110-hour weeks for far less money?"

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