Another year, another labor battle. This time, the NFL is going up against the NFL Referees Association.
The league announced Monday that it will immediately proceed with the hiring and training of replacement officials. Negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL's referees remain unresolved.
"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," the league said in a statement.
A negotiation session took place Sunday under the direction of the federal mediation and conciliation service. The FMCS also assisted in last year's labor negotiations between the league and its players. Negotiations on a new agreement with the officials began last October. The previous agreement was for six years, but no new deal is in sight, so the league is going to Plan B. Regional training sessions for new officials will start later this month.
While this labor battle won't receive the same kind of attention as the one that took place last year, it figures to become an increasingly prominent point of discussion -- especially among fans -- if a deal isn't reached by the start of the regular season.
UPDATE: The NFL Referees Association issued a statement later Monday in which it said the league had "terminated negotiations." The union accused the NFL of contacting possible replacement referees before the negotiating session had finished and said the league reviewed its offer for "fewer than five minutes" before rejecting it.
"It is now clear the league never intended to work toward a fair agreement, even through mediation," the statement reads. It also includes a promise that "our organization's professional referees will continue preparing for the 2012 NFL season to the best of their abilities, despite the NFL's refusal to provide them with vital training and educational materials."
UPDATE: The NFLPA responded Monday with a statement expressing concern over the league's lockout of referees.
"The NFL Players Association is concerned about the NFL's decision to lock out professional referees and recruit scabs to serve as referees in NFL games for the 2012 season," the statement reads. "In 2011, the NFL tasked officials with increased responsibilities in protecting player health and safety, and its search for scabs undermines that important function. Professional athletes require professional referees, and we believe in the NFL Referees Association's trained first responders. The NFLPA will continue to monitor the league's actions in this situation."