NFL settlement a victory for unions, solidarity

By now you’ve likely seen the “Fail Mary,” the nickname for the Green Bay Packers/Seattle Seahawks final play from Monday night’s game. The referees missed a penalty and simultaneously had opposing calls about the result of the play. Ultimately, the Seahawks were awarded a touchdown and the victory.

But, these were not just any refs. These were replacement “scab” refs as the National Football League had locked out the referee union since the start of the preseason.  This labor battle has touched off a national debate about the treatment of workers and their unions.

The referees would not agree to the loss of their defined benefit pension. Fully funding the established pension system would be less than 1% of the NFL’s yearly revenue.  But like many other major companies posting record profits (in this case, $9 billion in yearly revenue), the NFL expected the referees’ union to make significant concessions. When the union rightfully opposed such tactics, they were locked out.

In their place, the NFL brought in a cavalcade of referees from the college ranks and even castoffs from the Lingerie Football League. Their failures were numerous but let’s run down just a few of the most egregious:

a) Not knowing how the two-minute warning works
b) In two different games, giving teams extra timeouts
c) Missing the correct spot of a ball, incorrectly running a clock causing a game to end on a last second drive
d) The aforementioned “Fail Mary” from Monday night where the referees missed an offensive pass interference call according to the NFL.
Monday night’s game brought the use of scab referees to the public’s attention. There were protests. Columnists, bloggers and others penned stunning articles demanding the NFL reach a respectful agreement with the union. Solidarity petitions popped up from the AFL-CIO. Incredibly, even union-busting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ayn Rand acolyte/vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan made statements wanting the union referees back.

However, the most damning statement came from their fellow NFL union – the NFL Players Association. It was a statement of solidarity as much as a condemnation of the league’s propaganda. The NFL is currently embroiled in a lawsuit involving 3,000+ former players and their families that believe the league misinformed them and hid information about the dangers of concussions. The NFL is also dealing with “bounty-gate,” which the league alleges was a player-funded pay-for-injury scandal.

The dots are connected by the letter from the Players Association executive committee which read, in part: “Your decision to lock out officials with more than 1,500 years of collective NFL experience has led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity.” This decision, the players said “has not only resulted in poor calls, missed calls and bad game management,” but will also “continue to jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game that has taken decades to build.”

“It is lost on us as to how you allow a Commissioner to cavalierly issue suspensions and fines in the name of player health and safety yet permit the wholesale removal of the officials that you trained and entrusted to maintain that very health and safety,” the players continued. “Your actions are looking more and more like simple greed.”

In response to the poor officiating, the NFL decided that they would take decisive action … by punishing the coaches and players who complained. Somehow, the problem was not the scab refs but the people who were pointing out the obvious problems.

Then NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated in an interview about the lockout: “Yours truly doesn’t have [a defined benefit pension]. It’s something that doesn’t really exist anymore and that I think is going away steadily.”

Of course Commissioner Goodell doesn’t have a pension. He makes nearly $20 million per season. He doesn’t need a pension. Working people, like the referees, do.

Finally, bowing to the significant pressure, the NFL reached a tentative agreement with the referees late Wednesday. Early reports from ESPN state: “The current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season or until the official earns 20 years of service. The defined benefit plan will then be frozen.” However, for new hires, and for all officials beginning in 2017, retirement benefits will be provided “through a defined contribution arrangement.” The annual league contribution made for each game official “will begin with an average of more than $18,000 per official and increase to more than $23,000 per official in 2019.”

Ultimately, the NFL referee lockout has shown the nation the importance of unionized, skilled labor. It has shown us a perfect example of why allowing unskilled “scab” workers in jobs across the nation is an incredibly dangerous folly. It has also shown the importance of solidarity.

Now it is on us to keep pushing back against these corporate assaults on workers and their unions, as well as work to build a new world in which those rights and the value of their labor are respected.

Photo: Ed YourdonEd Yourdon // CC 2.0



Neil Parthun
Neil Parthun

Neil Parthun is an activist and a sports fan. He attempts to bring these two worlds together with his weekly radio show/podcast/TV show "Not Another Sports Show" and with his writing. His goal is to help build a space that shows people can care about both social justice and sports.