NFL’s Standoff With Referees Won’t Stop the Game, Goodell Says

The National Football League and its officials have to close a gap of about $50 million to $70 million before they can reach agreement on a new five- to seven-year contract, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.

The NFL started its season two nights ago with replacement officials from the lower college football levels working the Dallas Cowboys’ 24-17 win over the New York Giants.

“Our officials did a more than adequate job,” Goodell said at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit hosted by Bloomberg Link in New York yesterday. “We’ve proven we can train officials, get them up to NFL standards, and we’ve done that in a three-month period. These officials will get even better as time goes by. The game is not going to stop.”

Goodell said the NFL and its officials’ union have “significant differences” from philosophical and economic standpoints. The league locked out its 120 part-time officials in June and the latest round of contract negotiations was ended by Goodell on Sept. 1.

“We want to make officiating better for the long term,” Goodell said. “This agreement is critical in doing that. We want to make sure we have a deep pool of officials, train them properly. Maybe when performance on the field is not doing so well, we can move guys in and out during the season, maybe by individuals or by crews.”

Full-Time Jobs

Goodell said the league wants to hire full-time officials, possibly one on each crew. He said officials have been making an average of $150,000 annually and the league offered a salary increase to about $200,000 on average. The two sides also disagree on pensions.

The NFL Referees Association said in a Sept. 2 statement that the league provided an ultimatum that the union abandon its positions on all issues other than compensation in return for the possibility that the league would modestly increase its offer. NFLRA spokesman Michael Arnold said yesterday in an e-mail that the union wants to reach a fair agreement with the league and get back on the field.

“Our members are professionals who have continued to prepare for the season and are ready to go,” Arnold said. “We have repeatedly shown our willingness to seek a middle ground in negotiations with the NFL and continue to be willing to engage in meaningful negotiations.”

Replacements Used

The replacement officials used in the season opener emerged without any of the significant mistakes or confusion that led to criticism from players, coaches, fans and the media during the preseason. Arnold said the union won’t comment on the performance of the replacements.

“The officials are being trained. They understand the rules,” Goodell said. “Unfortunately, officials make mistakes. We have situations every season, every week, where an official may not drop a flag for a violation and we have to fine. Officiating is an imperfect science.”

Goodell said the NFL is also evaluating a reduction of the preseason, saying that fans don’t like the current format of four exhibition games for each team.

The league is considering formats that would have each team play two preseason games and then 16 or 18 regular-season contests.

“The four preseason games are an issue for us,” Goodell said. “One, you have a question whether we really need it to put on the best quality product. Two, you have an issue of how our fans are reacting to it, and they’re not reacting positively. It’s not the kind of standard that the NFL is used to producing.”

The issue of a shorter preseason came up during labor negotiations last year.

“We had the right in the previous bargaining agreement to do that unilaterally,” Goodell said. “We didn’t do that because we want to be thoughtful, smart and make sure our players are part of the decision.”

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