The lockout of referees by the National Football League has now generated far more coverage and controversy than most labor-management disputes, especially when you consider that only 121 workers are involved. Much of the commentary has been of the sort of hyperventilating, nearly irrational discussion that characterizes sports talk. A look at the issues, however, illustrates how this is a classic union-management confrontation, and very reminiscent of the types of face-offs we see especially in the public sector these days. Although the dispute is definitely about money, it is also about who controls policy in the NFL.
Controversy over the use of replacement officials came to a head on Monday night when they blew a call that gave the Seattle Seahawks a victory over the Green Bay Packers on the last play of the game. Poor Seattle has not gotten much love for holding the vaunted Green Bay offense to just 12 points, which put the Seahawks in the position of snatching a late-game win in the first place.
Instead, the invective over the last play has flowed at NFL management. ESPN analyst Steve Young said that the lockout was destroying a 'revered' institution in the country, suggesting that Young needs a basic civics class on truly revered American institutions.
Even the august editorial page of the Wall Street Journal couldn't bring itself to completely support ownership. The paper pointed out that if you are paying the exorbitant ticket prices the NFL demands these days, you might expect the refs to get things right. Still, it's worth noting that the long list of legendarily bad calls that have decided games in the NFL contains mostly misjudgments by the real refs.
Much of the commentary about the strike has revolved around an emerging theme, namely that the NFL owners are endangering the 'integrity' of the game using replacements. This is a strange claim when you consider that the regular referees are resisting efforts by the league to institute more quality control of officiating.
Unlike other major professional leagues, NFL officials are only part-time employees with other careers. On the one hand, the refs are fond of pointing out that even though they work just one game a week during the season, they work like full-timers, doing some 25 hours a week of film study, for instance. They argue they should be paid like officials in professional baseball or basketball.
The league, however, wants to hire a crop of full-time officials and use them to train new referees and improve the quality of officiating. While the referees' union doesn't officially oppose the idea, its members are wary of the plan because they fear a move to a permanent crop of full-timers would force them to choose between careers. I'm not sure how the owners are to blame for that.
Similarly, the NFL wants to add additional crews to take pressure off current officials, giving them weeks off during the season. This would add about 20 additional officials to the league. The union has opposed the idea. They fear that the move would dilute their own pay and benefits.
Moreover, the prospect of additional refs sitting on the sidelines might give teeth to the NFL's long-standing desire to evaluate better its own refs. As a league spokesman recently said, "If a guy is underperforming, we could take a guy and sit him down for a while and bring someone else up."
The referees want to continue with a process of self-evaluation that the league and officials now use. I'd love to self-evaluate at work, too, and I'm guessing so would you.
All of this is hugely familiar to anyone who watches union-management issues. Evaluating individual workers is often anathema to union leaders, which is why so many collective bargaining agreements revolve around paying people by seniority rather than productivity. In the private sector this made many unionized companies uncompetitive. In government, where unions are often blessed with operating in a monopoly world, it has given us public schools where bad teachers are impossible to fire and good ones don't get rewarded for their work. I wonder how former NFL stars like Steve Young who are grousing about the NFL's use of replacements would have liked being paid themselves by seniority instead of performance when they played.
Of course, the strike is also about money issues, and here it seems so easy to blame the owners because, as everyone knows, the NFL is just swimming in cash.
Still, the money issue is more about fairness. The refs in particular are resisting an effort by the league to move them into a 401(k) style pension plan in place of their current defined benefits pension, which guarantees them a set payment in retirement. Welcome to the real world, refs.
The NFL has already instituted such a plan for its many other workers, but the refs want to be treated differently. Sounding very much like government union leaders I've heard recently, the director of the referees' union even recently said these refs were "hired with the promise of a defined-benefit plan."
Sorry, guy, but you are only due in life what you've already earned, and the private sector is filled with companies that made the switch from a defined benefit to a 401(k) by transferring the credits from one to another. It's hard to feel sympathetic for workers who want the right to continue earning benefits at a fixed level for their entire careers. If only we all could be so lucky.
There is far more serious stuff for the average taxpayer to be concerned about when it comes to the NFL. The league and politicians have gotten together in many cities to build taxpayer subsidized stadiums even when local residents didn't want them. Special exemptions in Congress have helped the league negotiate favorable TV deals that everyone who subscribes to a cable or satellite system is paying for, including non-fans. Head trauma is a serious issue in the league.
None of these issues have hurt the league's popularity, however, and neither is the lockout. It's a classic management vs. labor dispute, replaying themes that have resonated in labor disputes for decades. We'd hardly notice if it wasn't the NFL.