There was a time when the NFL used replacement officials because of a labor strike. It could very well happen again this season.
The NFL has reportedly asked its officiating-scouting department to begin assisting the league in identifying potential replacements for the 2012 season. The move comes as a result of the league and the NFL Referees Association having reached an impasse in labor negotiations. The agreement between the two parties expired at the end of the 2011 season.
"Negotiations are ongoing, and should the two sides reach an agreement in the near future, there will be no need to hire additional officials," wrote Ron Baynes, the NFL's director of recruiting officials. "This is a contingency plan to make sure the NFL season will continue on schedule as planned."
Baynes has recommended his scouts target officials who recently retired from college officiating. In addition, he suggested they look at current "lower-division college, professional league and semi-professional league officials whose window of opportunity for advancement has pretty much closed but who have the ability to work higher levels but just got overlooked."
In 2001, the NFL used replacement officials during the final preseason and first regular-season games. The league and the NFL Referees Association then reached an agreement on a new five-year labor deal shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 led to a temporary postponement of the NFL season.
Common belief is that the annual salary of NFL officials ranged from $70,000 to $140,000 under the previous labor deal. While the pay is lower than that of their peers in the NHL and NBA, NFL referees work a lighter schedule, calling only 20 games a year prior to the playoffs. Most NFL officials also have full-time jobs in other professions. But, NFL referees spend many hours each year studying game video and rules to stay on top of their craft.
In planning to hire replacements, the NFL would potentially gain leverage in negotiations with the referee's union. However, using replacements may not be popular with players or fans, particularly considering the high scrutiny that referees are constantly under and the league's efforts for improved safety. For example, NFL referees are instructed to monitor players for concussion symptoms during games.
"Our negotiations with the referees association are continuing and we are optimistic that there will be a successful resolution," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Wednesday night.