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Solidarity! The NFL Referee Lockout Is An Important Labor Stand-Off

The National Football League’s players have in the broadest sense supported the league’s professional refs in their labor dispute with league owners, which still shows little sign of abating. (Today, the NFL made it official: the referees will be locked out of Week 1 games, which will impact who gets into the playoffs every bit as much as those Week 17 nail-biters.) The NFL Players Association has rightly recognized this as an economic dispute, in which the total that’s being disputed (some $16.5 million over five years) amounts to pocket change for league owners. The players have also not refrained from making moral claims for the referees’ position. “In 2011, the NFL tasked officials with increased responsibilities in protecting player health and safety, and its search for scabs undermines that important function,” the group declared in a statement in June. “Professional athletes require professional referees.” 

But over the course of the pre-season, the league seems to have managed to drive a wedge between the professional players and the professional refs. The instrument of choice? The gaffe-prone amateurs who are filling in for the professionals. As has become clear through the three rounds of preseason games, the main thing the real refs and the replacements have in common are the striped shirts: the replacements, in a word, suck. In response, many individual players have publicly bemoaned and mocked the replacements, effectively undermining the normal referees’ negotiating position. As they used to say in a different time and place, the players are becoming “objectively”  pro-management; when the going got tough, the players’ ostensible concerns for the sport and their own health went out the window. And absent all along has been the recognition that the referees are, pardon the expression, on their team.

Before we get to that, a quick note on just how bad the replacement referees are: We don’t really know. The most frequent errors during the preseason have not been egregiously incorrect calls but rather lapses with decorum of the sort that sully the overall product but don’t necessarily affect the game itself: the lead of a New York Times article this week, for example, referred to one ref who announced calls with his back to the television camera and another who credited the Atlanta Falcons with coming from Arizona and had previously officiated in the Lingerie Football League (which appears to be what it sounds like). But, sure, they have missed calls the normal refs probably wouldn’t. They have failed to uphold the normal refs’ practice of perennially screwing over whichever team you root for (I kid). And most of all they have exhibited a stark lack of knowledge over the rules: a kick returner was called for holding (can’t happen); a team was awarded an extra play because the first quarter had ended on a defensive penalty (halves may not end on defensive penalties, but quarters may). The first major screw-up is likely not to be judgment-based—a missed pass interference, a phantom holding—but something characterized by actual ignorance. Still, it would be silly to analyze the replacement refs on merely three weeks of games, particularly in the preseason: The dataset is neither large nor representative enough.

But this hasn’t stopped the players from mouthing off. Minnesota Vikings kicker Chris Kluwe, a frequent quote-source for NFL beat reporters, tweeted, “The NFL really needs to kiss and make up with the refs. Their replacements are horrible. Frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing.” Said All-Pro Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, “They haven’t been very good.” Drew Brees, the quarterback for the New Orleans Saints (and—full disclosure—also for my fantasy team), who is particularly active in the players union, added, “I would be concerned if it went into the regular season, certainly.”

Implicitly, it’s fair to say that the players are siding with the normal referees—note that Kluwe puts the onus on the league to take the initiative in ending the dispute. DeMaurice Smith, the players union executive director, has kept hitting the safety note.

But what’s missing is, in the old-fashioned sense of an old-fashioned word, solidarity. If last year’s player lockout—to say nothing of smaller things like the political predilections of basketball players and owners—indicates anything, it’s that the players and the owners, the millionaires and the billionaires, live on different planets, even if both of them are much wealthier than we are. The players, under Smith’s lead, should recognize or be shown to recognize that when it comes to collective bargaining agreements and how the NFL’s unfathomably massive piggybank (which plausibly could have exceeded $10 billion in revenue last year) is divided, the players and the normal referees have common cause. Call the replacements scabs (you don’t have common cause with them, but don’t call them bad, thereby giving the league a stronger position. The players should make a safety-based case, sure, but also make the case that the lockout is detrimental to the sport and detrimental to their fellow league employees.

This goes also for the fans, who, because they see that the difference between the refs union and the owners is relatively small and mostly about money “don’t care,” as blogger Ryan Wilson incisively and bluntly noted. We are always being told about the NFL’s working-class fanbase; the most famous individual fan is a fireman (assuming Fireman Ed is a real-life fireman). And even if you are not a blue-collar caricature, you are by definition also less likely to be in the .01 percent inhabited by most of the owners. So where’s the solidarity there?

In 1987, the players went on strike for a few games and the owners hired scabs to play for those teams whose players didn’t cross the picket line. As fictionalized in the movie The Replacements (in which Gene Hackman confusingly played Joe Gibbs with a Tom Landry-style fedora), the Washington Redskins’ all-replacement team defeated a Cowboys team with several scabs in the final game before the strike ended, and the Redskins went on to win the Super Bowl. The chance that the referee lockout will have a similarly storybook ending this season is the same as the chance that the Redskins will win the Super Bowl this season. And missed calls will be the least of it.