Commentary

NFL: Stickin' (It) To The Union

Lockout shows priority of safety; muted response shows priority of middle class

Updated: August 23, 2012, 4:08 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

A high moment of the low comedy that is the ongoing NFL lockout of its own officials came early, when the union accused management of hiring a scab who had been fired from the LFL. The NFL insisted this official had not been fired by the LFL -- but didn't bother denying that the LFL was at the top of his résumé.

[+] EnlargeRoger Goodell & Carl Cheffers
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesReferee Carl Cheffers is locked out, so Roger Goodell will have to talk to someone else before games.

Using "replacement officials" who have emphatically NOT BEEN FIRED BY THE LINGERIE FOOTBALL LEAGUE is all part of the NFL's space-age commitment to brain science and player safety. As opposed to pulling volunteers out of the stands at random or letting the television audience vote on penalties by texting "encroachment" to 1-800-HOCHULI.

Thus does the least-loved labor struggle in sports history proceed. What are they fighting over? What does the NFL want? What does the NFL Referees Association want? Who knows. It changes with every press release. And whatever you hear in public from either side of a labor negotiation about a specific demand or concession is spin, strategy, a lie.

Nutshell: Management wants to give the union less of something. The union wants more of it. The union wants less of something. Management wants more. That's it.

Just remember: This isn't a strike. It's a lockout. The owners are trying to teach the officials a lesson. For a league with revenues far north of $8 billion a year, the petty cash in dispute is laughable. Especially when you consider there are only 119 NFL officials. And that they're employed part time.

If Roger Goodell and the NFL and the NFL owners were serious about player safety and player conduct, for $50 million a year -- less than 1 percent of total revenue -- they could hire 200 well-trained full-time officials at $250,000 each.

But the NFL and the NFL owners and Roger Goodell are not serious about those things. They're only serious about looking serious about those things. With the simple application of cash and backbone, they could make the game safer overnight. Instead, they'll nickel-and-dime the officials' union just because they can. And because we live in a moment when capital openly carries a nightstick in every debate over money or politics, you'll let them get away with it.

Corporate thugs everywhere are trying to bust what's left of the unions, and lockouts are now their favored tactic. From Con Ed to Entergy to American Crystal Sugar, and from the NHL to the NBA to the NFL, ownership's message is clear: Too much for us is never enough. Too much for you is socialism.

[+] EnlargeChicago workers, 1886
Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesTens of thousands of workers, including men from the Horn Brothers Furniture Co., went on strike in 1886 to demand an eight-hour day.

But where's the pushback? Where's the solidarity? When did we stop calling replacement workers scabs? NFL players scoffed at the league and the NFL's cooked books just last year when asked to take their own pay cut but are nowhere to be found in support of the officials. And where, Mr. and Mrs. America, are you? Maybe we could get your attention if commissioner Goodell threatened to outsource the work to Guangzhou or Matamoros or Bangalore.

The lockout of a few faceless performers in an age of Bread and Circuses can still be illustrative, even if only to underline one of the worst beatings our middle class has ever taken. So I don't understand your inaction. And I don't understand your every-man-for-himself disdain for unions. Isn't the essential lesson of football that it takes teamwork to succeed?

You know that your leisure to watch an NFL game on Sunday was argued and bargained and fought for by unions, right? That the wages you spent on that game-day flatscreen were argued and bargained and fought for by unions, right? That your standing as a member of the American middle class was argued and bargained and fought for by 200 years of collective effort and sacrifice and blood on the part of folks just like you, right?

Or maybe you don't. Maybe we've lost the habit of looking out for each other. Of empathy. Fellow feeling. Of picturing ourselves in another guy's shoes. When did we decide it made sense to give up on each other?

Next kickoff, maybe think of it this way: That referee, that back judge, that stranger down there on the field running as hard as he can to keep up with the millionaires but falling farther behind with every step? Maybe that's us.



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