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Even after Monday debacle, NFL holding firm in referee negotiations

Representatives of the National Football League, including commissioner Roger Goodell and chief legal council Jeff Pash, were locked in negotiations Tuesday afternoon with representatives of the locked-out NFL Referees Association in New York City, a source with knowledge of the talks told me.

Speaking for the fourth consecutive day, and trying to end a stubborn labor dispute that has enflamed the country, the two sides did not appear close to a deal on Tuesday afternoon.

One of the emerging and major reasons why a deal has been so elusive, according to the source, is that the NFL is insisting on getting some control of the officials back that it has ceded in past negotiations with the NFLRA. This includes the league's desire to have three seven-man officiating crews in reserve with the ability to replace -- either for a game or longer -- underperforming current officials.

Another source with knowledge of the locked-out officials' position said Tuesday that the NFL would not guarantee that they would work at least 15 games in a regular season. Currently, other than due to injury, an official that starts a season works the full season. The officials source said that this is the main crux of what the NFL is trying to do in these negotiations: wrest back control of the officials' performance week to week in an NFL season. I've been told that the NFL is insisting on being able to make in-season changes to crews based solely on performance of individual officials.

For those who would say in the wake of the officiating debacle in Monday night's game in Seattle that the NFL should give the officials whatever they want to settle the dispute, the league source said that, in effect, the NFL is willing to look at the dispute as something like a game of chess vs. a game of checkers. The league believes that the short-term pain of a football nation up in arms will be worth it two to four years down the road if they can improve the overall quality of officiating by adding what would be a taxi squad of three additional crews. In other words, it's likely that Goodell understands that solving the lockout by abandoning the demand for the extra officials would be a popular move today, but the NFL would still have what it considers the problem of not being able to replace underperforming officials.

There's also still the matter of the league trying to roll back the officials' pension. Over the last five years, the league has contributed, on average, about $5.3 million per year to the officials' pension plan. The league, in keeping with the current cost-cutting practice of corporations across America, no longer wants to guarantee how much each official would get in retirement, but rather tie the contributions to a 401(k)-type pension. That would save the league about $3.3 million per year.

Many would say that giving part-time officials a pension contribution of $12,500 per year is sufficient. But the locked-out officials look at it this way: The league is more prosperous than it ever has been, and more profitable than it ever has been. What is the justification for cutting pensions by 60 percent in a booming football economy?

So that's where we stand. And though an impartial view of the dispute would draw the conclusion that Monday night's embarrassment in Seattle would push the league toward making a deal immediately, I don't see signs that the NFL is caving today.

Editor's note: Because of the events of Monday, Peter King's planned Tuesday column on Christian Ponder will run as part of either Friday's Game Plan column or in Monday Morning Quarterback.

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