Skip navigation
Sign up to follow your favorites on all your devices.
Sign up

Could referee lockout result in player strike?

DeMaurice Smith

NFL players union chief DeMaurice Smith pauses as he speaks during a news conference outside their headquarters, Thursday, May 24, 2012, in Washington. Smith repeated charges that the NFL Players Association claimed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota on Wednesday that the 32 teams had a secret salary cap in place during the uncapped 2010 football season, and that it cost players at least $1 billion in wages. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)


As the NFL and its referees union rocket toward the playing of games without the usual game officials, a serious question is emerging regarding whether the players will submit to games officiated by folks replacing the locked-out men in black, and white.

“We’ll see what the decision is as we get closer to the day,” NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth told PFT Live on June 5. “Hopefully, they can figure this out in an amicable way as soon as possible. I’m not sure what the decision is going to be from the Players Association when that day comes.”

That day is coming. The preseason begins on August 5, only 12 days from now.

Though NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has yet to disclose the union’s plans, it’s clear that he has concerns.

Asked to gauge his level of discomfort regarding the absence of the regular officials for regular-season games, Smith went off the charts. “On a scale of 1 to 10? Twelve,” Smith tells Peter King of Sports Illustrated. “The officials are being asked to be first-responders on the field for player safety as well as to officiate the games. How do you expect officials not used to doing games at that level to be able to step in and handle the job? To use a [lockout] as a motivational tactic in negotiations . . . we find repulsive.’’

While the Collective Bargaining Agreement contains a no-strike/no-lockout clause that prevents a work stoppage during the 10-year term of the deal, the CBA doesn’t expressly prohibit a sympathy strike, in which the players would respect the game officials’ picket line. The players could, in theory, boycott games under that principle.

The players also could refuse to work based on the argument that replacement officials create an “abnormally dangerous” working condition. And that wouldn’t necessarily be a frivolous claim. As King points out, Division I conferences won’t allow their officials to serve as NFL replacements in 2012. The conferences permitted officials to work as replacements during a 2001 lockout that lasted through the first week of the regular season.

“That means the replacements will come from lower levels of college football, some retired and/or dismissed college officials, and high schools,” King writes.

That also means the replacements will be something far less than the best of the best officials. Thus, when the NFL specifically required game officials to monitor players for signs of concussions during the 2011 season, the league unwittingly set the stage for a showdown with players on whether replacement officials compromise player safety.

It would be easy for the NFL to simply remove that responsibility from the replacement officials, but the fact that the NFL gave those duties to the game officials in 2011 supports a claim that it’s now a necessary component of player safety.

It nevertheless would be risky -- and potentially very expensive -- for the NFLPA to call for a sympathy strike or a walkout based on allegations of abnormally dangerous conditions and later to lose in court on whether the strike/work stoppage was legal. The players would be responsible for the losses incurred by the owners, which would be significant given the refunds to ticket purchasers and network partners.

Then there’s the P.R. fallout that would come from a player-initiated work stoppage, along with the question of whether the NFLPA would be able to persuade players to do something they ultimately refused to do in 2011: sacrifice game checks.

Regardless of how this one plays out, the looming possibility of lost games will make fans who don’t currently care about the referee lockout change their tune.