The NFL Referees Association called out the league for its commitment to player safety on Wednesday afternoon. Referees are currently locked out after their collective bargaining agreement with the NFL lapsed in June. The league is planning to hire replacement referees which the NFLRA says undercuts the seriousness of the league's stated concerns over player safety.
"There is a great deal of atmosphere control," explained veteran NFL referee and past NFLRA president Ed Hochuli on a Wednesday conference call with the media. "Players know who we are. They're going to see how far they can push it, going to see how much they can get away with."
Hochuli and Scott Green, current NFLRA president, used the example of leg whips and shots on a pulling guard as infractions related to player safety that could be left uncalled.
With the lockout ongoing and no resolution in sight, the NFL is planning to bring in replacement officials. Those "scabs," as the NFLRA representatives referred to them, lack the same level of experience and training that comes with being an NFL referee.
NFLRA officials described the lengthy process officials go through each year in order to be ready for the season. Citing the complexity of the league's rules, both Green and Hochuli emphasized just how important ongoing training was for even the most senior of officials, much less a newcomer.
"The NFL would never put more than one rookie official on a crew," Green said in discussing the difficulty of the job. "[Using replacements] has got to be pretty unsettling to players and coaches, not to mention fans. The folks that are going to be on the field are not of NFL quality."
Players, coaches and fans could very well get a taste of those replacement officials when the preseason opens later next month. Talks between the NFL and the NFLRA are at a standstill. The NFLRA says that is has "continuously indicated" their willingness to resume talks over a new collective bargaining agreement since being locked out on June 3.
The NFL has given no indication of a willingness to resume talks, say the frustrated referees.
"The lockout seems to be their negotiating strategy with everybody," said Mike Arnold, NFLRA legal counsel and lead negotiator, making reference to the collective bargaining standoff between the league and its player in 2011.
In the interim, referees have continued their preparations for the season, studying video, taking quizzes over the rules and other methods to hone their skills. More than once NFLRA representatives on the conference call mentions that they would be ready to go when the season starts.
"When the lockout ends, we'll be ready to take the field," Hochuli said. "Missing the preseason hurts."
Wednesday's call marked a more public and more direct line of criticism over the league's commitment to player safety and competitiveness, two issues the NFL considers to be paramount to its success. Time will tell if that is enough to lure the league back to the bargaining table. For now, a referee lockout is unlikely to draw the attention of fans like a high profile lockout involving the players. That could change when fans see replacement refs in action during the preseason.