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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Sep 26, 2012, 11:45 am

Do NFL Players Have the Power To End Referee Lockout?

BY Roger Bybee

NFL referees, who have been locked out by owners this season and replaced with scabs.   (Belinda Hankins Miller / Wikimedia Commons)

The NFL owners’ intransigence came home to roost before a huge national audience on Monday night at the Green Bay Packers-Seattle Seahawks game.

During the last play, the “replacement” (scab) referees missed a blatant, highly obvious Seattle penalty, then transformed a Green Bay pass interception into a Seattle touchdown after Seattle’s Golden Tate belatedly got one hand on a ball already tightly in the grasp of Packer M.D. Jennings. Suddenly and undeservingly, Seattle won the game.

Even the ESPN broadcast commentators—whose customary role is uncritically promoting the National Football League—were aghast. “Those were two of the worst calls I’ve ever seen!” one exclaimed. (Nonetheless, the NFL endorsed the outcome in a statement Monday, acknowleding the penalty but saying the call couldn't be changed after the fact.)

 “This is hard to watch,” replied another ESPN announcer with undisguised disgust. “When will the coaches go to the owners and say this is affecting your product?”

Others are asking similar questions about the players union--which has issued strong statements of support for the referees, but hasn't struck--and whether it has done all it can to support the refs.

The profitability of NFL football, which rakes in $9 billion in annual revenue, rests on fans’ faith in the fairness of the games. Yet the NFL owners—a group distinguished by their wealth, greed and arrogance (with a few notable exceptions)—have put the integrity of the game on the line by locking out 120 referees in a contract dispute over job security and pensions.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, always an anti-union hardliner, blithely pronounced the first three weeks of scab-refereed games to have been “exciting” and “great.”

In line with the ruthless “Caterpillar capitalism” (the brass-knuckled bargaining tactics of firms like Caterpillar and General Electric) now prevalent across Corporate America, in which employers making record profits decide to extract huge concessions from their workers, the owners are demanding the removal of any job security for the highly-skilled refs, and are also seeking an effective 60-percent cut to their pensions.

The New York Times' Timothy Egan starkly outlined the one-sided class war waged by the owners against the referees:

The National Football League, which took in more than $9 billion in revenue last year and owned 23 of the 25 most watched telecasts last year, wants to cut the pension contribution by about 60 percent, moving the refs from a defined benefit into something closer to a 401(k).

What’s $3 million to the N.F.L.? It’s the price of a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl. So, to be clear, the most popular entertainment commodity in the land is willing to seriously tarnish its name, its reputation and the validity of its games for the price of a single half-minute ad.

But Monday night drove home the cost of bringing in scabs whose chief qualification was their willingness to undermine other workers.

Even before Monday, NFL players were deeply concerned about the quality of the scab referees, says Jilane Rodgers, a spokeswoman for the players union. “I think the professional athletes of the Players Association know how hard the professional referees work," she told In These Times.

The NFLPA’s executive board—which includes some of its biggest stars, such as New Orleans’ Drew Brees—issued a stinging statement last Thursday:

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 that has taken decades to build.

It is lost on us as to how you allow a Commissioner [Roger Goodell] 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. It has been reported that the two sides are apart by approximately $60,000 per team. We note that your Commissioner has fined an individual player as much in the name of “safety.”  Your actions are looking more and more like simple greed.

The letter pinpoints the glaring inadequacies of the scab referees. The game has become much more dangerous for the players as the “replacements” have tolerated some of most hazardous practices—like the helmet-to-helmet hits that are known to cause concussions and brain injuries. The erratic calls have also lowered the credibility of the games’ final outcomes and thus invalidated teams' workouts, training and careful planning. And the scab referees have proven unable to keep the games flowing smoothly, resulting in stretched-out, ill-paced games that have set fans grumbling, according to the New York Times.

The letter also noted unprofessional favoritism by the scabs:

The headlines are embarrassing: a scab working a game despite having been on the payroll of one of the teams, another who was assigned to referee a team he publicly supported on Facebook, and one who is a professional poker player when you propose even more stringent player rules on gambling.

While the sports media has also heaped scorn on the scabs' performance, few have noted that it might have been expected, given that their chief qualification was opportunism.

Nor has the media devoted much ink to the how minimal the referees' demands are, relative to the teams’ enormous financial resources.

However, Monday night’s game brought the issue of the game’s integrity front and center. Even anti-union Gov. Scott Walker called for the return of the veteran referees, as did the Republican team of Romney and Ryan, both otherwise antagonistic to worker organization. President Obama, too, condemned the lockout, but his tepid statement—"NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs' lockout is settled soon"—missed a chance to mobilize his base among working people, in a failure reminiscent of his timid comments during the height of the 2011 Wisconsin public employees struggle.

Still, the owners—backed up by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell—seem intent on pressing ahead with the lockout, despite the ongoing damage to the carefully cultivated image of “the integrity of the game.”

While the Players Association letter is forceful and presents a fact-filled case for reaching an agreement with the real referees, the players might not be going far enough, says Ed Garvey, a Madison labor attorney who was the executive director of the NFLPA during the union’s immensely successful 1982 strike (which mobilized public support behind the players and helped them win a higher fixed share of league income).

Garvey, a long-time friend and colleague (we worked together at a pro-union consulting group from 1993 to 1996) believes that a show of civil disobedience by the Players Association would cause the owners—already under mounting pressure—to fold and bring back the real referees. The Players Association contains the usual anti-strike clause that is part of most union contracts, but, he says, NFL owners would be exceedingly vulnerable right now to an illegal show of mass defiance.

“What would the league do if the players refused to play and stopped at the gate?” asks Garvey. “If you look back at the Civil Rights Movement [Ed: which Garvey was active in], sitting down at the lunch counters was illegal and sometimes you just have to do what’s right. If the players said that they would stay out, the lockout of the referees would end in five minutes.”

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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