Sunday, September 9, 2012

The NFL Referee Lockout

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.

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