The league’s announcement that it has commenced the process of hiring and training replacement officials could serve only to further deteriorate an already fragile relationship between the NFL and the NFLPA.
Though the players’ union has been largely quiet regarding the labor dispute between the league and the game officials, the NFLPA has on at least one recent occasion made reference to “the situation with professional football’s first responders, NFL referees.”
With the new emphasis on concussion detection, that’s not hyperbole. And the expectation that the officials will add medical duties to their encyclopedic knowledge of the rule book probably is one of the many issues that is being debated. It’s an expansion of their duties, and their compensation fairly should reflect that.
Given the solidarity vibe that the NFLPA tried to exploit last year by sidling up to unions whose members make far less than six figures in annual salary, it’s possible that the NFLPA will stand up for the officials. Though this likely wouldn’t result in the players refusing to cross a picket line (especially since to do so would undoubtedly violate the labor deal), the union has the right to say anything it wants when it comes to whether the officials are being treated fairly by the league, such as accusing the league of hiring second-rate “scabs” to preside over the critically important business of officiating NFL games.
And if the replacement officials perform sufficiently poorly to jeopardize player safety, grievances could be filed.
Still, the question of whether the players will stand up for better wages for the officials isn’t as easy as it may appear. Any money that the NFL must pay the game officials ultimately becomes money that could be given to the players. While the players have nine years of certainty regarding what they’ll be paid, a significant increase in the NFL’s expenditures for officials could make the league decide to get some of that money back from the players during the next CBA negotiations — especially if the officials will be getting paid a premium to protect the players.
Then there’s the fact that the NFL’s officials didn’t do much, if anything, to stand up for the players during last year’s lockout. There were, for example, no legal briefs or other efforts to argue that the antitrust violations occurring as to the non-union (at the time) players could also be visited upon a group of non-union game officials.
It’s a tit-for-tat approach that could echo for decades, with the officials never supporting the players and the players never supporting the officials, given that both sides ultimately are concerned primarily if not exclusively with ensuring that they’ll get the most they can — especially if it means infringing on the money that goes to the other group of employees who are critical to the staging of pro football games.