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NFL, locked-out referees spar after contract talks break down

The prospect of replacement officials for the upcoming NFL season became very real Monday after the league locked out existing referees when mediation over contract negotiations stalled.

The officials' contracts expired after the 2011 season, and with talks at an impasse, the NFL has begun the process of finding new officials.

"We did not begin to contact potential replacements until well after the union advised us in March of its intention to take a strike vote and told us of its plan to drag out the negotiations until late summer," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement. "We obviously could not be put in a position of the union calling a strike once the season had begun."

The NFL Referees Association said the NFL began looking at replacements before mediation negotiations were complete, signaling the league "never intended to work toward a fair agreement," according to a statement. Officials added that the NFL took less than five minutes to review their most recent proposal.

The saber-rattling seemingly came out of nowhere as the sides appeared to be headed toward a new labor pact a few weeks ago. The NFL's move to begin hiring new officials didn't sit well with the NFL Players Association, which said in a statement that replacement officials ("scabs") might not be equipped to handle the increased attention to player safety.

The NFL said the officials who have been targeted for hire are "professionals who officiate games at a high level and have backgrounds similar to current NFL officials." The league said it has offered officials a seven-year package that offered annual compensation increases between 5 and 11 percent.

No new talks are scheduled, but the NFLRA said veteran officials will continue to prepare for the upcoming season.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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