Atlas derped


According to the NFL rulebook, a touchdown may be scored when your opponent has possession of the ball in your end zone, and you subsequently touch the ball. Also, if I give you a hug, your wallet is officially in my possession.

If you’re a sports fan, or if your social networks include sports fans, you probably know about what happened last night. If you don’t, the short version is that the NFL has locked out its regular referees and has been using replacement refs (from low levels of college football, high school football, and other places such as the Lingerie Football League); an astonishing display of incompetence by the replacements gave a win last night to the Seattle Seahawks, which they shouldn’t have gotten. The lockout is largely about the refs’ defined-benefit pensions, which the NFL wants to replace with defined-contribution 401(k)s, and fund at a lower level. Reports put the difference between the two sides at about $2 million per year, which sounds like a lot until you realize that the NFL has annual revenues totaling more than $9 billion. No one disputes that the NFL could afford the roughly $62,000 per team per year that it would take to close the gap.

The replacement refs have made plenty of high-profile mistakes during the first three weeks of the regular season; however, observers have noted that the league has no incentive to move in negotiations as long as viewership, ticket sales and merchandise revenue remain in place. If a tipping point were to come based on on-field performance, it would have to be a game being decided by a blown call, which is what happened last night. To their credit, ESPN — a close league partner and an organization that depends on access to league resources — minced no words and spent quite a bit of coverage last night framing the event as a debacle for the league. As it so often does, Twitter “blew up.” People are talking about quitting the NFL until the regular refs are brought back. More broadly, an enterprise that has put considerable effort into image management and control over the year — “protecting the shield” — and which made the pursuit of New Orleans Saints players and coaches involved in “Bountygate” the biggest story of the offseason, in the name of protecting the integrity of the game, has shown that image and integrity must fall in line behind union-busting.

Hall of Fame quarterback, ESPN analyst and Brigham Young University JD Steve Young summarized the situation well last night when he said that the league (and it should be noted that “the league” is really the 31 owners of the non-Green Bay franchises, not Commissioner Roger Goodell) views officiating as a commodity. So much the way they recently switched from Reebok to Nike as their uniform supplier, why should they find themselves beholden to some bunch of refs that don’t like the deal that’s on offer? After all, people follow and support the franchises, and the resources that go into maintaining those franchises (uniforms, refs, players) are just the cost of doing business. Plus, pretty everybody else has already had their pensions stripped away and replaced by the 401(k) guessing game, and not doing the same for refs is just going to distort the futures market for football officiating services. Indeed, attacking defined-benefit pensions is explicitly what the league is doing:

“From the owners’ standpoint, right now they’re funding a pension program that is a defined benefit program,” said Goodell, who was in Washington on Wednesday attending a luncheon hosted by Politico’s Playbook. “About ten percent of the country has that. Yours truly doesn’t have that. It’s something that doesn’t really exist anymore and that I think is going away steadily.”

There’s a reason that doesn’t really exist anymore, of course; it’s part of multi-decade war on labor that has ratcheted up significantly in the last few years. And while it has manifested in 2012 as a fairly broad disdain for workers, it would be ironic if a labor dispute at the high end of the income range, in a sport so often associated with a caricature of midwestern industrial labor, was what finally moved a significant chunk of public to action, or even awareness. Other than the liability for a significant injury that can be connected to shoddy officiating, the public changing the channel is the only thing that will get the NFL’s attention.

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    • Guest

       “it would be ironic if a labor dispute at the high end of the income range, in a sport so often associated with a caricature of midwestern industrial labor, was what finally moved a significant chunk of public to action, or even awareness.”  how true.  well said