Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Why the NFL Ref Lockout Had the Public on Labor's Side
Thursday, September 27, 2012
NFL referees have managed to do what public sector employees in Wisconsin and teachers in Chicago couldn’t: Inspire near-unanimous public sympathy for the demands of organized labor.
Refs will return to work Thursday evening when the Cleveland Browns play the Baltimore Ravens, following seven weeks worth of games poorly officiated by replacement referees filling in for locked out union members. The referees’ union and the NFL had failed to agree on changes to pension plans and performance reviews – familiar sticking points in recent massive labor disputes involving public sector employees.
Now it seems the referees have gotten most of what they asked for: they get to keep their defined benefit pension plan through 2016, instead of being moved into a 401(k) program right away as the league had intended.
“It’s very easy to see in this setting that the league was wrong,” said David Madland, Director of the American Worker Project at the progressive Center for American Progress. “The league was putting people in jeopardy and putting out a bad product because it was trying to squeeze a few more dollars out of the refs.”
Madland said that the public was very frustrated with the league and supportive of the regular refs. That frustration peaked on Monday evening following a game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. Replacement officials ruled that a last-minute hail mary pass by Seattle was a game-winning touchdown, despite two referees making opposite calls and both missing an offensive pass interference penalty that would have decided the game in the Packers favor.
The episode of ESPN’s Sportscenter that aired following the game was the highest-rated Sportscenter in 17 years, according to sports writer Bill Simmons. Writers on blogs were scathing. Commentators on television were livid.
But the complaints were familiar. Former quarterback Steve Young had been especially emotional after bad calls in the Monday Night Football game a week prior.
By and large, everyone was on the side of the referees, or labor. An ESPN sub-headline reads, “League’s arrogance and greed made situation far worse than it ever needed to be.”
“This is a really good example of the public very clearly understanding why trained referees, union referees, are so important,” said Alison Omens, Media Director for the AFL-CIO. Omens said that if the public were to dig deeper into labor disputes and union efforts involving electrical or construction workers, for example, people would be more inclined to support labor’s demands in other, less publicized industries.
“When issues are clear and unions able to communicate the basic issues at stake, they can generate significant public support,” said Madland. “Even in Wisconsin, which was the most partisan issue you could imagine, there was broad public support for basic rights to collectively bargain.”
The issues were clearer in the referees’ case because football is so insanely popular – and because the results of bad policy, as well as the blame, are far more obvious on a televised gridiron than a Chicago classroom.
“The politics comes into play less,” said Madland, who’d like to remind you that Rush Limbaugh can earn ratings saying whatever he wants about politics on his radio show, but was canned as an NFL commentator for inaccurate and offensive remarks about certain players’ abilities. “We’re able to more clearly see the truth in sports” – and when someone’s downright wrong, as replacement refs were on Monday night.
Politicians weigh in
Seeing the truth in a football game doesn’t translate to seeing the light on organized labor as a whole.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who became the anti-union poster child after the 2011 protests, tweeted about his frustration with the officiating in Monday’s game, including the hashtag “Returntherealrefs.” Walker appeared to assign blame to the league, not the referees – the hashtag wasn’t “Refsgetbacktowork” – but a spokesman later said that Walker wasn’t expressing support for unions.
The lockout had even become a subject on the presidential campaign trail.
“I’d sure like to see some experienced referees, with NFL experience, come back out to the NFL playing fields,” Mitt Romney said in a CNN interview on Tuesday.
“I’ve been saying for months we’ve got to get our refs back,” President Obama said that same day, after spending the morning addressing the United Nations and the Clinton Global Initiative on issues regarding the Middle East and human trafficking.
“It’s time to get the real refs,” Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan echoed.
While explicit support for the union was lacking among the candidates, none of them explicitly blamed labor either. Has there been another union dispute during Obama’s presidency where Democrats and Republicans weren’t obviously on different sides of the labor-management battle?
“This is a real moment to recognize that this isn’t just about referees,” said Omens. “It’s about respecting the work people are trained and expert in. That’s not just referees, that’s government employees and teachers and firefighters and auto workers."
Given the level of attention around this lockout, referees could even help other unions articulate their case to the public, as NFL players did during the 2011 Wisconsin protests. “They can clearly use their status to argue similar issues are at stake in lots of other union fights,” said Madland.
Asked whether we could expect to see refs guest star in other unions’ campaigns, Alison Omens said that wasn’t in the playbook yet. “We’re just looking forward to watching some football tonight.”