Green Bay Packers

Replacement Refs 1, Green Bay 0

TBogg gives you the latest in the NFL referees strike lockout. Last night, a Hail Mary pass on the last play of the game was ruled as a touchdownfor Seattle, when the Green Bay player clearly caught the ball (and Seattle’s Golden Tate pushed off, for good measure). The play could only be reviewed for whether or not the ball hit the turf, not whether Tate actually had the ball relative to Green Bay’s MD Jennings. So the official in the booth couldn’t bail the scab refs on the field out. (UPDATE: or maybe not, making this even worse.)

So the replacement ref incompetence has now officially cost one team a game, and the frustration on display in the third week of the lockout just grew even more.

Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman tweeted “These games are a joke,” while NBA MVP LeBron James tweeted “I simply just LOVE the NFL to much to see these mistakes. I’m sick like I just played for the Packers.”

This threatens to make much more direct the teachable moment for the labor movement about replacing skilled workers with incompetent scabs, and how valued workers deserve what they get. The near-comic spectacle of the 120-odd referees being locked out because super-rich NFL owners want to take away their pensions only makes this more dramatic. Referees are literally asking for a dollar figure equal to 1/3 of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s raise. The referees are asking for nothing new in their contract, and are even willing to contemplate a hybrid structure where current refs get their defined-benefit pensions, and new hires receive the defined-contribution 401(k) plan. But the robber baron-like owners won’t budge.

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.

You don’t have to be a football fan to appreciate the importance of displaying, in real time and with actual verifiable data as opposed to bubble tests, the value of skilled labor in the workplace. The problem is that too many football fans are accepting the situation as it is.

In other words, Goodell’s gambit is working. Ratings are not appreciably different with the replacement refs, nor are ticket sales. Steve Young said this last week on ESPN (which, incidentally, is a non-union shop that used non-union contractors to build its facility, so let’s not valorize their truth-telling). Demand for the sport is inelastic; people will watch no matter what. So there’s no reason for Goodell to care about player safety or the integrity of the game. Either the refs come crawling back or they don’t, and either way, the owners make their money. “If it affected the desire for the game, they’d come up with a few extra million dollars,” Young said.

So unless there are more people like John Cole who definitively announce that they’re out, they won’t watch an inferior product any more until the professionals come back, the NFL has no reason to negotiate a deal. The owners don’t really have to respond to mere criticism. Although if the debacle on the field can turn Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker into a union sympathizer, anything is possible.

Photo by Darin House under Creative Commons License

UPDATE: And now Paul Ryan joins Walker by saying “It is time to get the real refs.” Apparently all it took was one Packer loss to get the anti-union wing of the Republican Party in Wisconsin to compromise on their principles.