The NFL is set to begin hiring replacement officials because contract talks with the referees' union have stalled. The NFL Players Association opposes the move. (AP)

As one cliché has it, the officials could call “holding” moments after every snap in an NFL game. If the league and the NFL Referees Association can’t come to an agreement before preseason games begin in a little under two months, maybe that’s what will happen.

That’s the lighter side of the dispute that led the NFL to announce they’d begin hiring replacement officials this week. The darker side is evident in the response the announcement drew from the players’ union.

“In 2011, the NFL tasked officials with increased responsibilities in protecting player health and safety,” the union’s statement read. “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 apparent hyperbole of that statement is intriguing. We think of “first responders” as police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. That the NFL Players Association should include officials in that category suggests something about the nature of their workplace. They believe they need to be protected from each other by the most competent available enforcers of the rules.

NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello made the case for the league vs. the officials this week. “We have every confidence that the officials who we bring in will do a fully credible job,” he said.

It’s too bad for the league that the players’ association doesn’t agree.

In an economic climate where various “first responders” not employed by the NFL are being laid off, perhaps the unwillingness of the NFL to come to terms with the officials’ union is business as usual.

The league has maintained that under the terms of their offer, first-year officials who made an average of $78,000 in 2011 would make $165,000 by 2018, and that they could also expect “expanded reimbursement for medical insurance costs.”

The NFL Referees Association has countered that the league unilaterally “terminated negotiations,” and that the plan to hire replacement officials will further endanger the health of the players.  Football fans should understand that collectively the players feel that way, too.