I'm not feeling much sympathy for NFL referees in this labor dispute.
It's hard to side with a group that turns down salary hikes of up to 11 percent. Ask the average worker the last time he or she got a five percent raise, let alone double digits. It was probably when Bush was president. The elder Bush.
It's hard to side with a group that has been offered a seven-year agreement that would push first-year officials' pay from an average of $78,000 to eventually $165,000.
It's hard to side with a group that was also offered retirement contributions starting at $16,500 per year, along with expanded reimbursement for medical insurance costs.
These jobs, incidentally, include little or no work during March, April, May, June and July. February and August aren't real taxing, either.
The NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) said the league “terminated negotiations” on Monday. The NFL says it will go seek and train replacement referees.
“It is unfortunate that as referees' responsibilities are expanded that the NFL would jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game by seeking amateur, under-qualified referees to administer professional games,” referee counsel Mike Arnold said.
Here's what's unfortunate: The referees are wrangling and increasing demands to try to get a bigger piece of the NFL's lucrative pie. I understand that. I even respect that, to a degree. But, if the NFL's publicly stated offer is accurate – and the NFLRA has not disputed that – then the referees will get a decent size piece of the pie.
You want to gain more respect for referees? Hold post-game news conferences to explain controversial calls. Hold post-game news conferences to answer why this holding penalty was egregious and another was overlooked. Shows some true public accountability.
Don't hold your breath waiting for the NFLRA to agree to be open and transparent on its officiating of the game.
Of all sports officials, football referees have it easiest in terms of fan pressure on the job. Basketball officials have fans close enough to touch them. Baseball umpires have lulls of quiet for sharp voices of criticism. Football officials have white noise.
There's no question about NFL referees being a quality group. They regularly make calls upon first sight that are impressive – rulings on in- or out-of- bounds or possession of the ball that are stunning to have grasped with a split-second look.
While referees aren't subjected to unintentional hits during play very often, there's a danger on the football field that doesn't exist to nearly the same degree in other sports.
On the other hand, instant replay – particularly on scoring plays – has taken some of the biggest areas of pressure off their backs. If they miss it, it can be corrected.
Will the quality of NFL refereeing be compromised if replacement referees are hired?
Initially, there has to be an effect. The referees in the NFL have risen to their status because of their skills. There's a reason why they've been in the NFL while the potential replacements have been working college games outside the BCS conferences.
Long term, the problem will correct itself. Some of those non-BCS referees are where they are because of age and experience. As they gain more knowledge and more confidence in their skills, the cream will again rise to the top. If the current crop of NFL refs refuse to compromise, they'll be left behind. It seem to me their leverage is not what they think it is, even though the NFL Players Association has predictably taken their side.
The NFL reached its decision to pull back from negotiations with the NFLRA because it said the referees abandoned previously held positions and increased their “economic demands.”
In other words: Give us more money!
These economic times are tough on nearly everyone and especially tough on those who aren't making the NFL's first-year part-time job salary of $78,000.
The NFL has offered the referees more money. Substantially more, it would seem on the surface. As the New Orleans Saints have learned, you push Commissioner Roger Goodell and his organization far enough, you'll get burned.
The referees might be seeking sympathy from the public against the big, bad NFL.
Fans will check their bank accounts and shed no tears. That's an easy call.