WASHINGTON (PAI) -- Citing the threat to the players' health and safety - a threat that violates their own contract with the league - the NFL Players Association formally asked league owners to end the NFL's lockout of the regular referees.
Incompetent "replacements" are running - and ruining - games, NFLPA said.
And in a measure of the outrage from football fans nationwide over blunders, injuries, late hits and blown calls, the regular refs have picked up support from one of the nation's leading union-busters: Right Wing Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis.
Upset at a replacement ref's call that a last-second Seattle Seahawks "Hail Mary" touchdown pass beat the Green Bay Packers, Walker tweeted that the owners should end the lockout and bring the regular refs back.
In an open letter to fans and owners, NFL Referees Association chief Tom Millis said the biggest issue separating the sides is the owners' demand to convert present and future refs' pensions from their current traditional "defined benefit" form to riskier 401 (k)-type "defined contribution" plans. The refs' association is an independent union.
"Every current NFL official was hired by the NFL with the promise of a defined-benefit pension package," Millis wrote. "Officials and their families made important life-planning decisions based on this inferior defined-contribution plan. I call that plan inferior because the league's offer would reduce their funding obligation for the plan by some 60%, and at the same time transfer long-term investment risk to the individuals (each official)."
A huge majority of private sector firms that still offer pensions offer the 401(k) type. But the NFL, with $9 billion in yearly profits among its teams, can afford the traditional pensions, Millis said.
A big complaint came from the players. Speaking as "men who love and respect this game," they told the owners that replacement refs, inadequate and untrained, may break the union's own contract with the league. But their letter did not say what the players would do if the NFL keeps locking out the regular refs.
"We believe there is substantial evidence you have failed in your obligation to provide as safe a working environment as possible," the letter, from NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and the union's executive board of 12 present and former players, told the owners.
"Your decision to lock out officials with more than 1,500 years of collective NFL experience has led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity. This affirmative decision has not only resulted in poor calls, missed calls and bad game management, but the combination of those deficiencies will only continue to jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game," the letter said.
The players association called the "replacement" refs "incapable of keeping pace with the speed of the game."
"It is lost on us as to how you allow a commissioner to cavalierly issue suspensions and fines in the name of player health and safety, yet permit the wholesale removal of the officials that you trained and entrusted to maintain that very health and safety," they said.
"It has been reported that the two sides are apart by approximately $60,000 per team...Your actions are looking more and more like simple greed."
The letter said the owners were not fulfilling their "legal, moral, and duty obligations to us and our fans."
The players demanded, "You need to end the lockout and bring back the officials immediately."
There was no immediate response from either the league or the owners to either letter or the fan uproar.
Meanwhile, Michael Arnold, a top negotiator for the referees' union, told Newsday the league "predetermined" it would lock out the refs, for the first time since 2001.
"They told us (last month) that if this thing was going to settle, it was going to be on their terms and they were not going to make any additional offers," Arnold said.
Video: Calling the situation "catastrophic," ESPN commentators Steve Young and Trent Differ discuss the referee lockout.
Photo: Joshua Trujillo/seattlepi.com/AP