The NFL's contract with the referees' union expired on May 31st, and last-minute talks between the sides broke down. Rather than rush back to the bargaining table, the league has announced it will start hiring and training replacement officials—and that's the biggest bargaining chip of all, of course.
Here's the NFL's full statement—but we bring your attention to one specific line:
Our goal is to maintain the highest quality of officiating for our teams, players, and fans, including proper enforcement of the playing rules and efficient management of our games.
Adam Schefter reports that the league will be hiring from the ranks of retired referees, and referees from small college conferences and arena football. They will not approach referees from BCS conferences, who would presumably be the second most qualified refs on earth. But the NFL isn't about to do anything to disrupt its own free minor league.
Expect the referee infighting to be more spectacular than any public negotiations. There was a brief labor stoppage in 2001, and replacement refs worked one preseason game and one regular season game. (There were few complaints about the quality of the officiating, although it's fair to guess the league discouraged that sort of criticism, for its own bargaining position.) Ed Hochuli, then president of the union, sent out a mass e-mail to prospective replacement referees. It read, in part,
Working as a scab will actually hurt and likely kill any chances you would have of ever getting into the NFL.
Presumably, there will be some replacement officials willing to cross the picket line. (Will the players, after their own protracted labor battles?) But before it comes to that, there's another lesson to be learned from that 2001 lockout: the league will crush the union without a second thought, if they think they have the leverage.
Those 2001 refs were seeking a pay increase of about 400 percent. During the preseason, the NFL countered with a 60 percent raise. The union rejected that proposal without taking it to a vote, and the NFL pulled it off the table. After the first week of the regular season came and went with replacement refs, the union came back and accepted the league's "final offer"—less than they would have gotten from the 60 percent proposal.