The NFL Referee Lockout: Fighting Over Inches

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I don’t know if you were aware of this, but there’s a lockout out going on in professional sports right now. No, I’m not talking about the NHL lockout — I’m talking about the NFL referee lockout.

Like professional athletes, sports officials have collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) with their respective sports leagues. The CBA between the NFL and its referees expired in June, and when the two sides couldn’t agree on a new agreement, the NFL locked out its referees, just like the NHL has locked out its players.

The referees are looking for increased salaries, improved retirement benefits, and want to make some changes to various operational issues. The NFL, not surprisingly, doesn’t want to spend more money on officials. The financial difference between the two sides amounts to around $4 million per year. To put this figure into perspective, the NFL makes over $9 billion in revenue each year. The NFL has locked out its referees in order to save about 1/2250 of its yearly revenue — approximately one twentieth of one percent.

This has led the NFL to hire replacement referees. None of these referees have worked in the NCAA’s Division 1 — which is the highest level of American football bellow the NFL.  Recently, one of these replacements was removed from a game after it was revealed that he was a fan of one of the teams involved, and some referees have reportedly made comments to players about their fantasy football teams. I’ve also read several articles complaining about the replacement referees; fans say the game is getting slower, that players are breaking rules left and right, and that the replacement referees are bungling calls on a regular basis. Put it all together, and many — including the locked out referees — say that NFL players are at increased risk of injury as long as the replacements are in action.

I’ve officiated soccer games — real football :) — at the university level, and let me tell you: it’s not something that you can just pick up, even if you’ve played and watched the game for decades. It takes years of training, and even then most people don’t have the temperament or decision making skills to referee at the highest levels. When referees are working games that are beyond their abilities, very bad things can happen. Coaches encourage players to see what they can get away with; games get rougher and fights break out; critical calls get called incorrectly, changing the outcome of the game dramatically. Even fans go berserk more than they usually do. Using replacement referees at a game’s highest level — a $9 billion+ business — is patently absurd.

But the NFL doesn’t care that the quality of play in its league is suffering, because it knows that the fans will keep coming to the games, buying the merchandise, and watching on TV. Because studies show that even a labour stoppage that leads to games being canceled has no long term effect on attendance. If sports leagues can lock out players, cancel games, and force their players into taking less money — all without suffering where it counts (the wallet) — why wouldn’t they? Likewise, the NFL is going to lock out its referees because it can get away with it. If several hundred NFL players can’t make any headway, what do you expect a bunch of lowly referees to do?

In one year we’ve already had the NBA lockout, two NFL lockouts, and now an NHL lockout. And you can expect more of these lockouts in the future: according to Bloomberg BNA and the New York Times, employers of all kinds (not just professional sports leagues) are increasingly turning to lockouts to resolve their labour negotiations. In the United States, the richest companies and richest people seem to be widening the wealth gap between themselves and everyone else. With more wealth, the members of the elite will have even more power and more reasons to simply lock out employees. Depending on the outcome of this year’s presidential election, things could even get worse in the coming years.


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