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Sunday, September 9, 2012
So, it's the first Sunday of the 2012 NFL season and, not one week after Labor Day (the day we're supposed to celebrate workers in this country, even if anti-capitalists like Eric Cantor can't quite grok that fact), the league will have Scab Referees calling the games today. The NFL owners have locked out the regular, unionized referees in order to obtain some leverage in new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations. Notably, the owners want the refs to accept a gradual move away from pensions and a slower rate of increases in pay.
One thing to keep in mind here: this is a lockout, not a strike. A lot of fans conflate the two, and that's wrong. A lockout is an aggressive move by the owners to keep the workers from, well, working, even though they're willing to do so. A strike is when the workers affirmatively decide to stop working in order to force the owners' hands. The moves are roughly mirror images of each other, but the agressor party is different; in this case, it's the owners escalating the conflict.
Anyway, the replacement refs. They've been getting some withering criticism. They're mocked for having little experience- one was drummed out of the lingerie league, one admitted he's better at calling six man football (and how often does THAT skill really get used?), one is a labor lawyer by day (!!!). Their on-the-field performance has been roughly what you'd expect from such inauspicious backgrounds. They show little grasp of the rules, a poor sense for how the game develops, and trouble in front of crowds and cameras.
Of course, to be fair to them, calling a football game is really hard; the rules are numerous and complicated, the action is fast, the offending actions are small and subtle. There's intense pressure from crowds of angry fans, to say nothing of 300 pound linesmen who'd been told all week to "GET MEAN!" for this game.
All of which kinda points out why it's important to have referees- and any worker, really- with some kind of demonstrated ability to handle the job- in other words, the regular, unionized refs.
That's not to say that the regular, unionized refs are infallible, or that even the worst regular ref would be better than the best scab ref. It's just to say that if you're looking for someone who can handle a difficult job, the person who currently holds that job is probably a good place to start your search. With the unionized refs, you can expect a certain skill level; most of them have been here before, often for a very long time, they've built up relationships with other refs, the league, and other football institutions, and have access to resources necessary to improve their skills. This doesn't mean they're all good; but it means we can hold them more accountable if they're not. They've kind of got no excuse. On the other hand, when you've got a guy who couldn't even keep a job in the lingerie league, his fuck ups come with a "Well, What Did You Expect?" issue.
That being said, I understand why the unionized refs are having trouble marshaling public opinion to their side here. For all the fan's bitching about the scab refs, it's not like they think much better of unionized refs. In every sport, we only notice the refs when they fuck up- and thanks to football's voluminous, complicated rules, there's plenty of opportunities for that, even with the best of refs. Moreover, the refs are fighting for pensions, and if you're in the private sector, like me, that kinda comes off like fighting for a right to sex with supermodels. I'll probably never have a pension myself, so why should I be upset that anyone else doesn't get one?
I get that, but there's a simple answer- pensions make the world a better place. The more people who have a stable, sustainable retirement, the more stable and just this country's going to be. The less people who have to suffer in their twilight years, the less strain that's going to be put on our public institutions. Thus, even if I'm not going to have a great retirement (And if you're really concerned, I'll tell you where to mail the checks), I'm still going to benefit from the better world that will result from somone getting a good retirement. I understand that they get a benefit that I don't, and that that's not fair; the thing is, I don't see why the logical conclusion is that I should be agitating for that benefit to be taken away from them; I should be agitating to get that benefit for myself, too.
(And if you're noticing that this same argument can be applied to, well, most union disputes right now, such as Illinois' argument over public worker pensions, give yourself a Gold Star for the day. Or a Red Star, if you listen to Paul Ryan.)
Of course, not every employer can afford to give its employees are useful pension. I get that, there are economic realities here. But this is the NFL we're talking about, an $XXX billion dollar industry. It can afford a little long-term planning for its employees. And I'm not in the mood to stand against the referees for having the courage to demand such a thing when bargaining for their services, even if I don't.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
I'm a little late to this one, but I still find it fascinating: Will Leitch, one of my favorite sports writers, has a pretty provocative piece in New York Magazine this week. The title alone ought to tell you what's up: "Is Football Wrong?"
There's certainly going to be a lot of people who immediately dismiss such questions. (Kissing Suzy Kolber kinda does, but that might just be the site's instinctive propensity for dick jokes). But- and this will surprise no one, as I have, at length, discussed my problems with the NFL- it's something worth discussing. The long term injuries in the NFL seem to be piling up, and I think it's okay to question if you want to keep watching that. And Leitch doesn't even get into Roger Goodell's dictatorial control over the league and the players, the league's woeful labor practices, and the way dreams of NFL glory are mutating college and high school football programs. There's good reasons to change the channel.
But still, I hesitate to call the entire game immoral, or even amoral. From a tactical standpoint, I think such terms necessarily imply a judgment call that puts fans of the sport on the defensive, less willing to consider any change, any improvement to the sport. From an equity standpoint, I don't think it's fair; all sports have their shitty, exploitative elements, who the fuck are we to declare what's better? Everyone should be allowed to like the sport they like without judgement, unless it's clearly, inextricably harmful.
Which brings me to my most important point: I don't think there's anything fundamentally immoral or amoral about professional football. I think the NFL pursues some immoral and amoral policies, and I think the NFL allows immoral and amoral things to occur. But I think those are policy failures with clear (if not simple) solutions. Player injuries can be addressed with better training, tweaked rules, better equipment, and better medical staff. Goodell's powers could be curbed by the other owners. Labor practices could change if the union and the fans stood united. I'm not saying these things will happen; I'm actually pessimistic about curbing Goodell's power or fixing labor problems. But I'm saying they could happen without fundamentally altering the sport. And that, I think, means that the amoral and immoral aspects of football can be separated from the game itself.
It's possible that I'm wrong. But I'd like to try it my way before I give up on football.
And if I'm right, then I think it's more important for the football fans with a social conscious to stay engaged with the sport. We need someone watching the sport to say this shit ain't right, and we want the Commissioner and the owners and the coaches to do something about it. I don't think it will be nearly as effective if those voices come from outside the football community; we've seen time and again that the major sports leagues are more responsive to their existing fan bases than to potential fans or lapsed fans (there's a lot of argument that hockey would be more popular without the fighting, but old time hockey fans still think it's essential, so the NHL keeps hockey; baseball refuses to adopt instant replay because it'll give George Will a sad; hell, even the NFL slow-walking new concussion policies is part of this). Plus, if you like football, you shouldn't have to do without just because Art Modell and Jim Irsay are turds. That puts the onus on the fans, and that's bullshit; we're not the ones fucking up the game here.
Of course, if you can't stand the carnage anymore, than you can't stand the carnage anymore. You don't have to watch, either. I think that's what KSK is kind of missing here; even if we can make a plausible case that the players have given well-informed consent to the risks, that doesn't necessarily make it fun to watch men doing long-term damage to themselves. But you can both like football and be struck by the consequences of the game as it's currently played. And if you are, I think you need to stay engaged.