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Open letter from NFLRA executive director on lockout

[Editor's note:  On Tuesday, September 18, the NFL Referees Association sent to the media an open letter from its executive director, Tim Millis. The letter, titled "Do What's Right and Fair -- For the Game and its Officials," appears in full below.]

The 2012 season of the National Football League (NFL), the most popular sport in America, is under way. The NFL consists of an ideal in which the best athletes compete against each other in packed stadiums, while millions of viewers watch on television. The television networks and their sponsors advertise products to this audience that remains captivated by the raw power and speed of the athletes on the field.

Maintaining the integrity and competitive balance of each game within a three-hour time frame is the job of 121 highly skilled professional officials.

At least that is how the game is supposed to work. And in general, it did, until this season, when the League locked out the very professionals responsible for working quietly, and behind the scenes, to keep the game pure, the athlete’s safe, and the competition fair.

These professional game officials – noted until this season by the NFL as being “the best in sports,” have spent years honing their skills, just like the athletes starring on the field. They have always taken great pride in their behind-the-scenes role of ensuring that each game is played fairly and within the rules.

What are the issues that have led to the current distraction of this lockout, during which on-field officiating has pulled our focus away from the game and the outstanding athletes? The issues go far beyond what the NFL has claimed to be the sticking points in our negotiations – salary and benefits. At issue is the very continuation of the time-honored NFL tradition of doing what is right and fair.

Both the League and the NFLRA have negotiated many prior collective bargaining agreements. Only one previous situation resulted in a two-week lockout during the 2001 season. So what is different this time around? Certainly, not lost revenues potential. The League is enjoying unequaled popularity and its growing annual revenues exceed $9 billion per year.

The two sides have narrowed the gap on overall compensation. It is a gap that could be closed with some minor concessions by both sides. However, the parties remain far apart on another key issue, and that issue is the retirement benefit for officials.

Every current NFL official was hired by the NFL with the promise of a defined-benefit pension package. All of these officials and their families have made important life-planning decisions based on this benefit promise. The NFL now wants to break the promise by eliminating that benefit; instead, turning to an inferior defined-contribution plan. I call that plan inferior because the League’s offer would reduce their funding obligation for the plan by some 60%, and at the same time transfer long-term investment risk to the individuals (each official).

Why does the League want to do this? Is the League in financial distress? Does the League see its financial future as bleak? Not hardly. The League states that it desires to eliminate the defined contribution plan because other American businesses are moving away from such plans to a defined- contribution type plan. However, 18 of the League’s member clubs continue to retain their defined-benefit plans for their employees.

The NFLRA has remained willing to compromise in order to achieve a workable new contract. We made a substantial concession in our effort to resolve our differences with the League when we proposed to “grandfather” the defined-benefit pension plan. Under the proposed grandfather plan, the defined-benefit plan would continue only for current officials, and new-hires would come into the League under a defined-contribution pension plan. Is this not a fair and reasonable compromise?

Earlier this year larger employers such as Con Edison, Caterpillar and Lockheed Martin all resolved their defined-benefit pension issue by agreeing to the grandfather compromise for their existing employees. Federal mediators in the current NFL-NFLRA dispute have indicated that the “grandfather” compromise resolves 90% of all such pension disputes. Yet, the NFL has categorically rejected our grandfather proposal.

The NFL requires that its officials impartially and fairly enforce the rules of professional football to ensure fair competition on the field. All the NFLRA asks is for the NFL to provide us the same type of fair treatment.

The goal for both sides must be to get back to the bargaining table immediately. We need to reach a fair and equitable agreement before damage is done to the integrity of the game we all love.

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14 Responses to “Open letter from NFLRA executive director on lockout”
  1. voiceofreasonsays says: Sep 18, 2012 4:18 PM

    Either comeback or take your whistle and go home.

  2. kelvinmchale says: Sep 18, 2012 4:33 PM

    Imagine you are a schoolteacher and have been for twenty years. When you were hired you were promised a pension based on 60% of the average of your three highest years salary. You make other investment and financial planning decisions based on knowing that pension would be there upon retirement. Now picture five years away from retirement the school system tries to take that very pension away from you. What would you do? That’s the issue the referees are dealing with now.

  3. Mr. Wright 212 says: Sep 18, 2012 4:51 PM

    The NFL and the owners look very, VERY bad on this. In fact, there is case law on situations like this. This is illegal.

  4. scrappler says: Sep 18, 2012 5:01 PM

    the real hang-up is about the nfl’s ability to evaluate and reward/punish referee performance. if it was purely about money, this would have been over long ago.

    if the nflra would agree to performance reviews with teeth, the nfl would gladly agree to “grandfathering” current referees retirement benefits.

    the refs don’t want to be ref’d themselves. this makes them no different than any other union — the union’s goal is to protect its members, not ensure that its members are doing the best possible job.

  5. bearflagfan says: Sep 18, 2012 5:12 PM

    I would be more sympathetic to the refs if they were full-time employees. The release notes 18 (of 32 or 56%) of clubs keep defined benefits. But I’d bet that is for full-time employees. I think the NFL should offer to make any referee who becomes a full-time employee grandfathered under the previous retirement benefits. Those electing to stay part-time should be happy with the defined contribution to a 401(k).

    Yes the replacements are bad for now. They may get worse. But that won’t last, they will get better. In 1981 Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers. Their job was more complicated, more stressful, and if they screwed up people might die. But nobody died and those air-traffic controllers the ones who wouldn’t go back to work for Reagan’s FAA under the new terms ended up doing something else. Not a happy ending for the strikers.

  6. bigjdve says: Sep 18, 2012 5:33 PM

    A good compromise would be retirement for evaluations.

    If the NFL can evaluate the refs based on performance, then they can have their grandfathered retirement.

    The problem is that the refs wouldn’t like that, as that would impact their retirements more than the NFL’s current offer.

  7. ydnubm says: Sep 19, 2012 12:53 AM

    I’m sorry NFLRA, but you are out of touch. You are part time employees and expect a guaranteed pension? You are not the first nor the last to have your pensions converted into a 401K. At least you have the pension from your full time job to fall back on. Oh, wait–Jones, Skelton & Hochuli, P.L.C. doesn’t have a pension for its employees?

  8. kelvinmchale says: Sep 19, 2012 10:09 AM

    What do you mean “part-time”? Every ref works every game of the season, and some work playoffs. That’s the job. If the season was twelve months long they’d work for for twelve months. It’s not. They are not part time workers and should not be considered as such. If they are, then kickers and punters and all players are, too.

    One of the reasons to form a union is to protect its members from having valuable benefits taken away. Should the refs just lay down and not fight for what they were promised?

  9. bigjdve says: Sep 19, 2012 10:57 AM

    kelvinmchale: The term part-time refers to any employee that works less than 35 hours a week. They may work all of the games, but they still are considered part time.

    Ask any employee that only gets 33 hours a week, and how the offer of benefits isn’t given to them because of it.

    With regards to the Retirement plan, the officials have every right to complain if ANY of the money that they has already been put into their pensions.

    Regarding rolling them over into a 401k that isn’t guaranteed, that is something that happens on a daily basis for companies.

    There is no guarantee that a company that offers something now, will offer the same thing in the future. The fact that the Refs are stating that they are counting on this retirement with monies yet to be earned is telling. It means that they fully expect that they will keep their jobs until they are ready to retire. Meaning that if they don’t get it, it impacts their plans. No wonder they are fighting for no evaluation system, if they get fired it would impact their plans as well.

    Unions are supposed to protect their members from being mistreated, they are NOT supposed to be in the business of abusing businesses or taking advantage of them. They are supposed to keep the proceedings fair.

  10. kelvinmchale says: Sep 19, 2012 12:09 PM

    I disagree. The job of NFL referee is a unique and highly specialized position that I would not consider part time. If an NFL ref only worked a couple of the games, then I would say he is a part time ref. Schoolteachers work less than 35 hours per week if you average it out over the course of the year. Are all teachers considered part time? Of course not. They work all the hours required for the job. And they get pensions, too.

    The Federal Government is one of the largest providers of pension benefits to employees in the United States. If they decided right now to tell all existing employees that the pension system was being changed to a 100% 401k, there would be blood in the streets and they would have to call in the National Guard to stop the riots. And I don’t have to tell you how poorly our government is doing right now.

    On the flip side, the NFL is thriving. Companies that take away pension plans do so because of poor market conditions and/or to remain competitive. Is the NFL struggling financially? Are they struggling to pay their employees competitively? They are experiencing record revenues and ratings and the future looks brighter than ever. Just ask Drew Brees.

    The NFL owners have simply found an area where they feel like they can cut costs, now and in the future. To put it simply, they are trying to renege on a promise, and it is making them look as greedy as ever. And you think this is fair?

  11. bigbeefyd says: Sep 19, 2012 1:06 PM

    kelvinmchale says:Sep 19, 2012 12:09 PM

    The Federal Government is one of the largest providers of pension benefits to employees in the United States. If they decided right now to tell all existing employees that the pension system was being changed to a 100% 401k, there would be blood in the streets and they would have to call in the National Guard to stop the riots. And I don’t have to tell you how poorly our government is doing right now.

    ***************
    Where does that money come from, sport?

  12. kelvinmchale says: Sep 19, 2012 2:45 PM

    No, it doesn’t come from sport, it comes from the hard-earned income of every taxpayer. The NFL pension money does come from sport, though.

  13. FinFan68 says: Sep 20, 2012 8:02 PM

    This is the official’s only valid complaint that I have seen. Grandfathering current membership seems like a fair compromise. So does the NFL’s desire for accountability and increased available officials. The NFLRA will not agree to that because they are afraid the NFL will just fire them 1 by 1 until the DFPs no longer exist. Both sides have a point and neither side wants to actually compromise.

    Maybe the NFL should grandfather the current guys and remove any offers and/or possibility of increased compensation for those officials and institute a mandatory retirement threshold based on age/experience/ability. They could start the contributions plan with new hires and spell out longevity and performance requirements necessary for increased compensation on an individual basis rather than collective benefits.

  14. bobwoolsey says: Sep 26, 2012 12:03 PM

    Aren’t Unions supposed to not cross other Union’s Picket Lines-Why then are Players crossing NFLRA picket lines? So if they are crossing the lines and they are not supposed to then aren’t they at fault?

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