Why are the NFL refs locked out? It's all in the game

Referees huddle in conference during the NFL pre-season game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium Aug. 24, 2012, in Kansas City, Mo. Getty Images

(The Nation) Although anathema to NFL fans across the country, we should recognize that sometimes a punter shall lead us. It was Minnesota Viking's punter Chris Kluwe who took to Twitter and said what has been so painfully obvious through three weeks of the National Football League's pre-season: "The NFL really needs to kiss and make up with the refs. These replacements are horrible. Frankly, it's kind of embarrassing."

Kluwe is correct. It is embarrassing. It's embarrassing that replacement referees with highlights on their resumes like working for the Lingerie Football League have been bungling calls throughout the pre-season. This has included screwing up the small detail of which teams were actually on the field. It's embarrassing that in a league where any play could be the last time someone walks without a limp or concussion, these incompetents are in charge of monitoring the health and safety of players. It's embarrassing that members of the NFL Players Association, who are part of the AFL-CIO, will, once on the field, be under the authority of scabs.

It's also bewildering. Consider the multibillion-dollar entity that is the National Football League. Then consider that NFL referees are 119 part-time employees who make $8,000 a week. As Jeff MacGregorcalculated at espn.com, at a cost of $50 million a year -- less than one percent of total revenue -- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could hire 200 full-time officials at $250,000 a year. Conversely, if Goodell gets everything he wants from the referees union and he doesn't have to spend too much in legal fees, it works out to league-wide savings of just $62,000 per team.

Locking them out is like using an Uzi on a field mouse. The question once again is why? Why has NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, taken such a hard line? After a year defined by the tragic suicides of former players suffering from post-concussion syndrome and a looming lawsuit brought by 2000 former players contending that the NFL didn't take their safety seriously, why would they engage in such naked contempt for the well-being of players and the integrity of their game? Simply put, because they can.

The NFL clearly believes with no small amount of justification that they can do this because no one will care. As NFL VP Ray Anderson said, perhaps while twirling his mustache, "You've never paid for an NFL ticket to watch someone officiate a game."

The only way to understand why there is a lockout of NFL Referees is to understand who is doing the locking out. It's not Roger Goodell, who for all the fawning media profiles, is little more than an exceptionally well-paid executive "flak-catcher." It's the people he represents. NFL teams are no longer family businesses and owners are no longer kindly patriarchs. They comprise the right-wing edge of America's super-rich. NFL owners don't travel in the same circles as Mitt Romney. They travel in the circles of those who underwrite Mitt Romney's campaign.

For these twenty-first-century Masters of the Universe, the lockout, once a near-unthinkable labor-management tactic, has become the weapon of choice when dealing with what's left of the trade union movement. Since 2010, the number of lockouts annually in the US has doubled. A lockout gives employers the power to strip workers of their salaries, bring in temporary replacements and then simply wait until the day locked out workers eat through their meager savings and then force them back on the conditions of outlandish demands. It's a management tactic that has hammered thousands of families from middle class security to destitution.

The owners have decided NFL referees need to be locked out because like the scorpion who stings, that's simply what they do. Look at the demands being made of the referees: NFL owners want them to stop being part-time labor and instead work full-time for the league. Sounds great, except they want the refs to eliminate their other sources of income while taking a 16 percent cut in salary. They also want to eliminate their pensions and replace them with 401k plans tied to the stock market. Put simply, the owners line is less pay, less benefits, and if you don't like it we're locking the doors.

"They told us if we didn't take what was on the table, they would cut it more and they have. They have disguised regressive bargaining as trying to improve officiating overall and to give people more time off," said NFL Referee's Association lead negotiator Mike Arnold. "They keep saying in the media that they were willing, able, and ready to negotiate, but they kept telling us they weren't interested in discussing our proposal and if the deal was going to settle it was going to settle on their terms."

The referees and the NFL Players Association both seem to be keeping any joint strategy under wraps. "We'll see what the decision is as we get closer to [opening] day. Hopefully, they can figure this out in an amicable way as soon as possible. I'm not sure what the decision is going to be from the Players Association when that day comes," NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth told "PFT Live."

Named one of UTNE Reader's "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World," Dave Zirin is the sports editor for The Nation magazine. Mike Elk is a labor journalist and third-generation union organizer based in Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

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