NEW YORK -- Paul Tagliabue's 12 years of labor peace are over -- the NFL will lock out the regular officials and use replacements this weekend.
Tagliabue, who prided himself on the lack of labor trouble since becoming commissioner in 1989, made the decision in consultation with seven owners to lock out the officials for at least the final week of preseason. That came after talks broke down on a new contract to replace the one that expired in March.
"We have a duty to our fans and teams, and we cannot go into the regular season with the threat of a sudden work stoppage by our game officials," Tagliabue said. "Despite our efforts, we remain far apart, and the officials' negotiators have repeatedly refused to consider a no-strike, no-lockout agreement with the NFL covering the 2001 season."
Tom Condon, the negotiator for the officials, said he will continue to push for talks to bring the dispute to an end.
Predictably, few people are happy.
"It's a shame because I've just memorized all the old guys' names and was just starting to get close to them, so it will be a little different for me," Green Bay coach Mike Sherman said.
"I'm concerned to a degree because you work so hard at this game and you want a certain air of professionalism. Not to say that the men out there won't do their very best, but obviously they don't have the experience of the guys that we're losing had."
Said New Orleans coach Jim Haslett when he heard of the lockout: "It will be fun this week."
Replacement officials will begin working Thursday night, when six games are scheduled.
"Their demands continue to be unreasonable," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "We remain very far apart. There was very little progress, minimal movement from their original position."
The officials said the NFL reneged on some of its pension and benefit improvements. Their salary proposals were 50-75 percent higher than the NFL's offer, which doubles most current salaries by 2003.
So 120 replacement officials, signed last week from the ranks of NFL Europe and the Arena League, will replace the regulars, oft-criticized but now seemingly missed by the players. Supervisors, all of them experienced ex-field officials, will head the crews.
"I'm sure every player feels the way I do, we want all the refs to be out there," Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre said. "I think they deserve more. How much is not up to me."
"We've worked hard and put a lot of time and effort into this, and we want the best possible guys out there," said New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who three seasons ago was the beneficiary of a bad call that led to the reinstitution of instant replay.
"I believe those are the guys who have been calling our games through the history of the league."
"We are the league. The players are the league. We want to be protected," said Robert Griffith, Minnesota's union representative.
The potential lockout marks the first time there has been any kind of job action involving NFL officials.
There have been three in major league baseball -- in 1979, 1984 and 1995 -- plus an episode two seasons ago when union umpires submitted their resignations and baseball accepted them, replacing a large group of long-term umpires. There also have been three in the NBA -- in 1977, 1982 and 1995 -- and a two-week action in the NHL in 1993.
The two sides hoped to reach agreement during their meetings Monday and Tuesday in Dallas.
Tagliabue broke off his trip to Mexico City for the Raiders-Cowboys exhibition to meet with Condon.
They negotiated for four hours Monday night and again for two hours Tuesday morning before breaking things off. Tagliabue returned to New York for a conference call with a group of owners on the situation.
Financially, the two sides are far apart.
The NFL is offering an official entering his fifth season $62,103 in 2001, compared to the $42,295 he'd have made last year as a fourth-year official for regular-season and preseason games plus various meetings and clinics. In 2003, he would earn $84,470.
The union, meanwhile is asking that a fifth-year official be paid $95,000 per season starting this year, an increase of 50 percent.
For senior officials, the difference is greater. The NFL is offering officials with 20 or more years of experience $120,998 this year. The union is asking $210,000, a 75 percent difference.
The sides are also using the other major sports for comparison, even though the three others use full-time officials and the NFL's are part-time, although by Condon's figures they work an average of 1,200 hours a year.
So the union noted that even if its offer is accepted, NFL officials would be the lowest paid on an annual basis. The NFL responded with a chart showing that per-game compensation in its 16-game season is double and triple the other leagues' at the 20-year level.
"We reviewed their offer and thought their offer was inappropriate and didn't address the contribution that the officials make to the game," Condon said. "They thought our offer was excessive and asked for too much."
At least one player agreed.
"I definitely think they deserve to get paid. You look at other sports and in comparison our referees don't get paid anything," Tennessee wide receiver Kevin Dyson said. "I didn't realize it either. For the kind of season they go through and all the traveling they go through, they're not getting paid very much."
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