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Labor Day Labor Lessons, NFL Edition

Welcome to Labor Day Labor Lessons, NFL Edition, and I’m your host, Peterr.

Since the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Referees Association expired on May 31, the regular NFL officials have been locked out. Predictably, the issues being pushed by the owners boil down to three that are very familiar to labor unions everywhere: salaries, pension, and the number of employees to be hired. The specifics in this case are neatly summarized as follows by Sports Illustrated’s Pablo Torre:

1. The NFL is proposing compensation increases of 5% to 11% per year over a proposed seven-year term for each official. The NFLRA, which sets its own pay scale but relies on the league to provide the aggregate pie to slice (last year it was $11.93 million), wants an aggregate increase of $2.2 million in 2012, and a $16.5 million boost over five years.

2. The NFL wants to transition officials, whom it deems part-time workers, from their “defined benefit” retirement plans to “defined contribution” 401(k) programs. The NFLRA wants to preserve the existing plan, shielding pensions from the stock market, but is willing to settle on grandfathering in current officials.

3. The NFL proposes hiring three additional crews (21 new officials) and introducing full-time referees, which it says will improve officiating. The NFLRA calls this an “attempt to divert attention” from the two previous issues. The union is not opposed to the notion of more crews and full-time officials, it says—if the two sides can agree on compensation.

Let’s look at the money first. Mike Florio at (who is “trying hard not to pick sides on this one”) describes how the owners see the gap between the two sides

as a canyon that amounts to $22.7 million over seven years.  (Of course, over those same seven years the league will likely have generated more than $70 billion in total revenues.)

With 119 total officials, it all works out to an average divide of $27,250 per official per year.

(pulling out the calculator) Let’s see . . . $22.7M divided by 7 years is $3.25M a year. Divide that by 32 teams, and we’re talking about $100,000 per team. I believe that the technical term for this in football is “chicken feed.” So scratch the notion that this is about money. It isn’t.

Instead, it seems all about control. This is our game, say the owners. We set the rules, we write the checks, we take the big financial risks, and we make the tough decisions. You — the referees today, or the players last year — are merely The Help. You need to show a little more respect for Your Betters.

And to do this, the owners are bringing in not just a few rookie referees, but an entire stable of them. Demaurice Smith, head of the players association and no friend of the owners, is not happy with that situation:

When you look at the referees combined, you’re talking about nearly 1,500 years of NFL experience. The National Football League puts such an emphasis on experience that in normal situations they onlyintroduce a rookie referee into the league with a team of experienced officials. All three of those things are unassailable facts, so given those three facts why would anyone choose to break away from the one new referee with a team of experienced referees and go to a full slate of new referees? The only conclusion that I have is that the league cares more about money than it does about the experience of the referees as a vehicle to increase player safety.

Management that values money over worker safety? No one could have anticipated . . .

But let’s look at who is replacing the regular referees:

MARTIN: Given some of the preseason troubles, players and fans are increasingly expressing concern that the replacement refs just aren’t up to the job. For example, the Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe tweeted this weekend, quote, “the NFL really needs to kiss and make up with the refs. These replacement refs are horrible. Frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing.” Why are they saying that?

TORRE: They’re saying that because the NFL replacement refs – you know, let’s put it in context. In 2001, the last time there is a lockout with the referees, they got to get – they were able to hire and staff using refs from the top level college ranks, from division one.

This time, there are no such refs because of the officiating supervisors who are ex-NFL guys, as well, and they want to see – and these refs, right now, are just from the lower, lower levels. You know, referees who last worked games in the lingerie league, for example, high school games, low level college.

And, when you look at what it takes to be an NFL ref otherwise, it’s an apprenticeship. It’s 15 years of service, climbing that ladder, from peewee all the way on up. And these are guys who are stuck – you know, in the present day, the guys are just dropped in here without any of that training, which is really a stark contrast.

MARTIN: So you’ve saying that they have – they are lacking that kind of 15 years of apprenticeship? None of the referees that we are seeing in these preseason games have that kind of 15 years of experience in either division one or the pros that we should expect in the regular season? None of them have that?

TORRE: Yeah. There is zero NFL experience among them and none of them are current division one NFL referees – division one college referees.

The attitude of the owners that referees are “part time workers” from Torre’s piece at the top is laughable, as NFL officials are as part time as Supreme Court Justices. (SCOTUS only holds court a couple of days a week, for a couple of hours at a time, and they take off all of July, August, and September, right?) Part time workers do not generally have to deal with this (again from Torre):

The official NFL rule book is 75,934 words long. The NFL case book, full of practice scenarios and rulings, is 77,260. The NFL instant-replay case book is 25,617. And the Penalty Enforcement Hopper book (hopper being ref-slang for play), the widely accepted manual that Hochuli wrote to help officials categorize infractions and determine their enforcements, is 11,519. Together, that’s 190,330 words—almost 10,000 more than the New Testament. (The Bible doesn’t even have diagrams.)

Sports fans everywhere have long memories about what happens when the referees and officials screw up. (Do not, for example, mention Don Denkinger to a St. Louis Cardinals fan if you are wearing a KC Royals t-shirt, nor Ali Bin Nasser to English soccer fans while wearing your Diego Maradona jersey.) But the occasional glitches by the officials at the absolute top of their sport’s ladder are tolerated, because fans generally respect the fact that they are the best. Even when the calls go against them, the players generally respect the officials for precisely the same reason. These aren’t the teenagers who ref the peewee games in the park, or the guys who ref high school games on Friday night.

At least they weren’t.

Now we’re getting the officials from the highest rungs of the lingerie league.


photo h/t to John Trainor

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

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