WASHINGTON -- When week two of the NFL season starts in Green Bay, Wis. Thursday night, fans won't see the league's most experienced referees taking the field before kickoff. The referees have been locked out of their jobs since June amid failed talks with the league over a new contract, leaving players and fans to rely on replacement refs who've been earning some less-than-stellar reviews for their calls.
The referees' union and NFL team owners remain at odds on several issues -- pay, staffing levels and the arbitration system, to name a few. But Scott Green, the referee who's head of the NFL Referees Association, says there's one proposal above all others that he and his colleagues can't manage to swallow: the league wants to freeze their long-running pension plans and switch them to less attractive 401(k)-style retirement plans.
"The key is the pension issue," Green told HuffPost, adding that the pensions have been around since the mid-1970s. "A lot of our guys have made life-career decisions based on assuming that pension would be there."
In facing a pension freeze, the NFL refs have plenty of company. Corporations across the country have been trying to switch their employees from traditional defined benefit pension plans to cheaper, less reliable defined contribution plans. Just one example is Con-Ed, which recently locked out workers as it tried to phase out employees' traditional pensions and move them to 401(k)s.
A lockout, it should be noted, is different from a strike. The workers do not elect to stop working -- they are forced to do so by management, putting them on the defensive. (Writing at The Nation, Dave Zirin and Mike Elk compared locking out 119 referees to "using an Uzi on a field mouse.") The prevalence of lockouts during labor disputes has soared in the weak economy.
But in this case, employees are squaring off with an ownership that doesn't pretend to be under financial duress. According to Forbes, the average NFL team is now worth $1.1 billion, up 7 percent over the previous year. To draw a blue-collar parallel, the league is a bit like the manufacturer Caterpillar, which has been pressuring its workers to bend to concessions despite the company's record profits.
Indeed, when HuffPost asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to address the pension issue on Wednesday, he didn't argue that the league's retirement contributions to referees had grown too onerous. Instead, he simply noted the fact that American workers in general are losing their defined benefit pensions. Even Roger Goodell, Goodell noted, doesn’t enjoy such a pension plan.
"From the owners' standpoint, right now they're funding a pension program that is a defined benefit program," said Goodell, who was in Washington on Wednesday attending a luncheon hosted by Politico's Playbook. "About ten percent of the country has that. Yours truly doesn't have that. It's something that doesn’t really exist anymore and that I think is going away steadily."
"What we agreed to do and offer as ownership," he added, "is that they would have a defined contribution plan, in the form of 401(k), so they'll still have a pension plan but the risk, like [for] most of us, would be on individuals."
Mike Arnold, the lawyer leading negotiations for the union, insists the referees were "all shocked" by the pension proposal, given the league's sound financial footing. He said the union simply wanted the same pay raises and benefit packages laid out in its 2006 contract. According to Green, referees earn between $4,000 and $8,000 per game, depending on experience.
Arnold argued that the league's 121 referees shouldn't lose their defined benefit plans just because workers elsewhere are losing theirs. The union has told the league it would accept a grandfather system in which current refs keep their current plans and new hires get 401(k)s, but the owners aren't biting. Arnold also said the refs don't merely take issue with the type of account they'd be switched to -- the league's retirement contributions would be trimmed significantly, according to Arnold's calculations.
"There's no reason for it," he said. "It's not like they are a normal business in any respect, in terms of tax status, anti-trust status and profitability. I think it's disingenuous to say that [because of] what's going on in the general economy that we've got to take this pension away from these 121 guys."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email that, under the league's offer, the referees would have received raises "in every category of pay -- game fees, travel and meeting fees," and that "an experienced official could earn more than $200,000 a year by 2018 under the proposal." He also said the retirement contributions would have been roughly $20,000 per year.
But how much money a referee earns all depends on how many referees are working. Each season, the league effectively gives the union a pot of money to be divvied up among the officials. Aiello says that to improve the quality of officiating, the league has proposed adding seven full-time officials (all refs are now considered part-time) as well as three new crews, which would boost the total number of referees to 140 -- proposals that Aiello claims the union has rebuffed.
Arnold said the league hasn't made clear how the added officials would be paid. "We've never opposed it -- not if they're fairly compensated," he said of the idea of new full-time refs.
Many of the league's referees have other jobs, including Green, who does government consulting work in the Washington area. But Green said an NFL referee's gig is like a full-time job for much of the year, as officials spend days doing required training, watching game tape and traveling during the pre-season and regular season. They can be putting in as many as 30 hours a week starting in May, Green said.
As the lockout wears on -- and as fans perhaps get more accustomed to replacement officials -- the referees could end up losing whatever bargaining power they have. Nonetheless, Arnold said they aren't buckling.
"Our guys are united. They're solid," he said. "One of the reasons they are as united as they are is the extreme positions the NFL has taken ... Why is it [owners] are taking this position? Because [they] think [they] are powerful enough to do it, and because [they] can. "
In the meantime, the referees' replacements can expect some serious Monday morning scrutiny. Deadspin, for one, assembled a compilation earlier this week of what it deemed "the 21 worst replacement referee mistakes from Sunday," filed under the tag "Scabwatch." Green told HuffPost that he did watch the games on opening weekend, but he didn't care to comment on how the refs fared.
Goodell, however, managed some kind words for the replacements, and hinted that the referees' contract might not be resolved all that soon.
"Every week we have some blown calls -- officiating is an imperfect science," Goodell said. "These guys did an outstanding job. We were very pleased with their performance, and they're going to get better."