A Touchdown for Labor

One of the most significant national labor battles is playing out in an unusually public arena: under the bright lights of America’s professional football stadiums. The National Football League lockout of 119 officials has been in force since June, and as the regular season rolls toward its fourth week, the NFL remains without its team in stripes—tasked not only with enforcing the rules of the game but with ensuring player safety. Fan impatience with the union-busting replacement refs, put in their place like so many substitute teachers, is giving the union millions of new, seething supporters with every game broadcast.

The NFL Referees Association never voted to strike. Contract negotiation broke down three months ago—the sticking points were salaries and benefits—and the NFL locked out its officials. In a league worth $9 billion the average salary for referees in 2011 was $149,000. Management offered a deal that would raise this average to $189,000, but the union believed it insufficient (it is unclear by how much), especially when put against what amounts to a loss on the most contentious point of disagreement: referees’ pensions.

“Every current NFL official was hired by the NFL with the promise of a defined-benefit pension package,” union chief Tim Millis wrote in an open letter last week. “All of these officials and their families have made important life-planning decisions based on this benefit promise. The NFL now wants to break the promise by eliminating that benefit; instead, turning to an inferior defined-contribution plan.” In translation: Since 1974, retirees received a stable, fixed income. The league wants to put officials on a 401(k) plan instead, where employees pay part of every paycheck into a stock market investment that serves as their retirement benefit. The NFL’s proposal would cap the league’s obligation to the plans at some 60 percent, and retirees would face risk. While the pension-to-401(k) shift is becoming common among private employers in America, particularly those with unsteady finances, the NFL hosts the country’s most popular sport and is remarkably profitable: The average team is worth $1.1 billion. Millis indicated that the union is proposing a compromise where current officials keep the defined-benefit plan but new hires are enrolled in a defined-contribution plan.

The NFL has released few statements on the dispute. But one statement in June contended that the union had “abandoned positions that it had previously taken with both us and the mediators, and made economic demands totaling millions of additional dollars that [the union] agreed to drop at earlier sessions. Given the NFLRA’s retreat from the process to which it had agreed, it only took a short time to conclude that the union’s proposal was not intended to move negotiations further.” The statement also claimed that the league didn’t entertain the notion of replacement refs until the union threatened to strike. The matter remains unresolved.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell figured that he could pressure the union to settle and keep the season going by using replacement referees called up from other leagues that play by different rules in much smaller arenas. The scabs come not just from college (which is often small-scale) but also high-school and even indoor and lingerie football leagues. The latter, alas, is a league that has the same relationship to sports that Hooters has to food.

These part-time officials aren’t compelled to work as replacements; if they are called up, they can refuse the NFL’s offer. There’s no way to know how many said no to the big stage in support of their locked-out counterparts. But officials that do leap the picket line are under intense fan scrutiny. No less than 64 percent of Americans watch professional football, according to a 2011 Adweek/Harris Poll survey. After four weeks of the preseason and three of the regular season, the replacements’ inability to control the pace of play is dragging out games and provoking a wash of sarcastic commentary (including from NFL players). Their misdeeds are vigilantly counted, and many are caused by basic misinterpretations of rules and influence game outcomes. The new refs are forgetting to throw penalty flags. They’re placing the ball in the wrong places. They’re letting the clock run when it’s supposed to be stopped. In one case, they gave a team an extra time out (and then pretended they didn’t). One replacement had to be replaced himself: Brian Stopolo was assigned to a New Orleans game but was pulled from duty just hours before kickoff because he’s an extremely public fan of the Saints: Photos of him in New Orleans gear were splashed all over his Facebook page, and the NFL didn’t know about it until ESPN pointed it out.

The lockout also turned an NFL milestone into something bittersweet. It should have been a celebratory moment when Shannon Eastin became the first woman to officiate a pro football game, first in the preseason and then in the Detroit-St. Louis game in Week 1. She performed her job well enough, but any enthusiasm is tempered by remembering that she leapfrogged other female refs who were ahead of her to be the first. (The league also bent its strict gambling rules for her: Eastin plays in the World Series of Poker, which should have made her ineligible to officiate.) Football officials methodically work their way up to the biggest of big leagues, from middle and high school on up, and Sarah Thomas, by rights, should have been the first on the NFL field. She’s officiated in Division I football since 2007 (think, Alabama, Michigan, Southern California) while Eastin comes from Division III (Framingham State, Allegheny College, Hope College). As the first woman to work in major college football, Thomas was featured in The New York Times in 2009, which called her “the most likely contender when the N.F.L. decides to add a female official.” Indeed, she’s long had the NFL’s eye: She’s worked regularly in the league’s training camps. But as a formal finalist to be an official, she was considered to be locked-out along with the union. It was ultimately Eastin’s willingness to cross the strike line that put her on the field and in the history books, not her abilities.

A far more serious consequence of the lockout is its effect on player safety. In recent years, researchers and fans have learned a great deal about how playing football damages the brain and body, and commissioner Goodell has consistently pledged to improve player safety, which officials are uniquely tasked with protecting. But Goodell’s use of inexperienced refs on the front lines is a serious risk to players. In a statement released earlier in the month, the union said: “It continues to mystify any objective observer of the situation why the NFL would jeopardize the safety of its players, the integrity of the game and the quality of its product in order to continue its attack on its professional referees.” Players have noticed, too. Just yesterday, ahead of the NFL’s third regular game, the executive committee of the football players’ union released a strong letter to team owners that called for an end to the lockout.

“We believe there is substantial evidence that you have failed in your obligation to provide as safe a working environment as possible,” the letter said. “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.  … It is lost on us as to how you allow a Commissioner 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.”

Fans and sports media have unusual power here. The NFL depends heavily on their support for their multibillion-dollar industry to succeed. They’ve been questioning, at high volume, the basic legitimacy of a league that would send replacement refs onto the field. But the NFL is still presuming that fans will watch no matter what, and so far, that bet is paying off.

“There’s nothing that changes the demand for the NFL,” former 49ers star Steve Young told ESPN. “So they want to break the union or send a message to them— they don’t care about player safety. It doesn’t affect the desire for the game. If it affected the desire for the game, they’d come up with a few extra million dollars.”

Sports fans have more power than they realize, and the atrocity of the replacement refs is cultivating union sympathizers even among those who typically have little love for unions. (A close relative of mine, a college football official and a conservative who enjoys Rush Limbaugh, is one of them.) In general, sports have provided a high-profile education in collective bargaining that began with the National Basketball Association lockout last year, which eliminated games until Christmas, and the NFL lockout against players, which wiped out 2011’s off-season and part of its preseason. Meanwhile, a National Hockey League lockout looms—players and management are primarily arguing over owners’ desire to reduce players’ share of league revenue by 10 percent within two years, citing the need to maintain competitive balance in a league with both flourishing and struggling teams. (Players have offered to reduce their share by 5 percent.)

Sports are the most high-profile arena labor has, with approximately 20 million fans tuning into pro football alone every week. Each one feels a stake in the outcome. Fans have noticed the effects of lockouts, and they’re not pleased. This frustration may mean that the sports-labor battles have repercussions beyond the stadium: Green Bay Packers fans in Wisconsin are also watching their state work to protect a law denying the bargaining rights of most public-employee unions. Detroit Lions fans in Michigan will vote on whether to enshrine collective-bargaining rights in their state’s constitution this November. Chicagoans watch Bears games in the wake of a strike by hundreds of thousands of teachers in the third-largest school system in the country. Whether that feeling of solidarity is carried into the voting booth remains to be seen.

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