[This column was updated at 11:01 a.m., Sept. 27]
When even Scott Walker and Paul Ryan kind-of, sort-of side with labor against management, who knows what else is possible? Maybe they’ll endorse tax increases and say nice things about teachers unions.
For friends of labor, the revolt against the National Football League’s replacement refs. leading to the triumph of the real refs, is the most remarkable event since the workers at Henry Ford’s car company organized into the United Auto Workers union. And, really, could there be a better object lesson in the arrogance of the very rich — and also in the value of the labor performed by line workers whose contributions usually go unnoticed and unappreciated? No wonder the NFL’s management finally capitulated. The fans threw the flag on the owners and gave them no choice.
The contempt that the proprietors of pro football felt for the referees was nicely captured last month by Ray Anderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game,” Anderson said.
Let’s parse this. What it left out is that the game people pay to watch cannot be played well without highly competent and trained referees. The human beings Anderson relegated to insignificance matter, especially to the health and well-being of the players fans very much want to watch.
Maybe now there will be a new appreciation of what “worker safety” means. Thank God it did not take a severe injury to a star to force the owners off their hard line. That may have been on the mind of Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, who to his great credit told ESPN Radio this week: “The game is being tarnished by an NFL [that] obviously cares more about saving some money than having the integrity of the game diminished.”
I doubt that Rodgers is surprised, given that the owners regularly refer to the game loved by tens of millions of Americans — myself included — with a term no doubt invented by some overpaid management consultant: the “product.” What a wonderful way of taking the game out of the game, robbing it of all human feeling and human responsibility.
The Executive Committee of the NFL Players Association noted this last week in a scathing letter to the owners. Calling for an end to the referee lockout, they charged that “there is substantial evidence that you have failed in your obligation to provide as safe a working environment as possible.”
The letter continued: “As players, we see this game as more than the ‘product’ you reference at times. You cannot simply switch to a group of cheaper officials and fulfill your legal, moral and duty obligations to us and our fans.”
It was entertaining to see Walker, the nation’s best-known union-buster, and his Wisconsin pal Ryan suddenly moved to call for a return of the real refs after their dear Packers were robbed of victory against the Seattle Seahawks by the blown call heard ’round the world on Monday night. They were saved by the Republican-leaning ownership’s capitulation from having to go the next step and endorse the union position outright.
I did feel Walker’s and Ryan’s pain, since my dear New England Patriots have been hurt by bad calls, too. However, it’s also true that the Patriots-Baltimore Ravens game I stayed up late to watch on Sunday was such a festival of officiating blunders that it had a curiously fair-and-balanced quality.
What made the owners look so bad is how stubborn they were over so little. Before the settlement, the New York Times estimated that the cost of giving the real refs everything they wanted ran to about $3.2 million out of $9 billion in overall revenue. That amounted to just 0.08 percent of the revenue from just the NFL’s television and cable contracts. Have you heard the phrase “corporate greed”?
And, while I rarely bring my children into columns, my 19-year-old son, James, a huge football lover and Obama supporter, inspired me with an e-mail wondering why the president hasn’t taken an even stronger stand on behalf of the union. President Obama called for a return of the real refs, but by doing more, my son argued, he could have underscored many of the points he has been making about inequality — plus, he “carries Wisconsin by like 20 points.”
It turns out that Obama didn’t have to do that much. The fans took matters into their own hands, and ridicule did the rest. But will we remember the lesson of the real refs? In this winner-take-all economy of ours, we rarely pay attention to those who make the game possible and help make other people rich. The real refs should give heart to all who stand up against arbitrary power and rebel against the disrespect routinely shown toward so many who are no less deserving than investors and owners of the title “wealth creators.”