The NFL Was Right

Note – While I was filing this, around midnight EDT on Thursday, news came across the wire that a tentative contract between the NFL and its referees was agreed upon. Nothing changes the opinions expressed herein. The NFL should have hung tough, but it did get concessions on several key points involving retirement benefits.

By the time you read this, the NFL labor dispute may be settled. Chances are, it will be in favor of the (part-time, mostly millionaire) referees union. If so, that will be because of a firestorm of public criticism, some justified, some not, over bad calls. That is a shame, because it is wrong – as a matter of precedent, policy and law.

The sports media, the average football fan, and now, the presidential candidates seem to have reached a consensus that the NFL lockout must end. By that, they don’t mean that the refs should accept the last offer of the NFL and return to work, but that the NFL must abandon its bargaining position in negotiations. Is there any discussion of the issues involved? Or their relative merits? Of course not. Meaningless phrases like the “integrity of the game” – by the way, am I the only one who thinks “integrity” and “game” don’t exactly blend? – are tossed around without any knowledge or consideration of the issues involved.

The referees, who are part-timers, want to hold onto a defined benefit pension plan instead of accepting sweeteners into their 401 (k), which is a common practice these days. While public pressure is always an issue in strikes and lockouts, and the side that wins the battle of public opinion does gain some leverage in negotiations, most organizations are well suited in the long term by holding firm to bargaining positions in these situations. It is naive to assume the NFL will drop its demands in total because of bad calls by replacement referees – and there have been bad calls – and the public discourse will be better informed and more nuanced if the coverage will analyze this as just another in a long line of union-management disputes over pension issues.

Here is what you won’t see in the media coverage on this issue:

1. Strikes and lockouts are as American as apple pie. When Congress created labor law as we know it during the Great Depression, it codified the right to strike. Later amendments to the act allowed equivalent employer responses such as lockouts, and the Supreme Court supports the right to use replacements.

2. Strikes and lockouts are ENCOURAGED in the U.S. While this sounds counter-intuitive, the policy behind U.S. labor law is about “private resolution” of labor disputes, rather than court actions or government involvement. Bringing economic pressure, which strikes and lockouts by definition are, is how private resolution occurs in tough situations.

3. If the NRL folds, football fans lose. Hey, I am talking to you, guy on the couch. Hate these bad calls? Fine. What happens next time the contract comes up if the NFL gives in on major demands this time? We’ve established that you, fired up by the union-carded media establishment, will not tolerate replacement refs. OK, know what that means the next time? If the refs demand, say, a million cool ones per game or they will strike? No games.

4. Public pressure should be ignored. If you worry about what the public will think, then don’t lockout or strike. Lockouts are old school, man, hard core. Be ready for the blowback. Or don’t lockout.

5. This is not about football. At the end of the day, this really isn’t about the “integrity of the game,” as pundits have loftily proclaimed. It is a meat and potato union struggle over a relic of the post-World War II human resources world, the defined pension plan. Think what you will, at least discuss it on these terms.

6. Refs make mistakes. Always have, always will. Sorry, if you are a sports fan you know these guys blow calls all the time, UNION OR NON-UNION. Here is a reminder of a media firestorm just a couple of years ago regarding the preening Ed Hochuli, former head of the referees  union, who made a bad call that changed the outcome of a game.

This will pass, of course. The refs will come back and the world will resume rotation on its axis. Maybe by the time you read this. I have one request of you, Dear Reader. Hold Jon Gruden, ESPN, and all of the sports commentariat to the same standard of commentary on referee performance they have demonstrated over the past few weeks.