Politics & Policy

Dead Ball Fouls

The controversial call, September 24, 2012
Five lessons from the NFL referee lockout.

It had been a thoroughly entertaining Monday Night (of) Football, tight and physical, pitching the Seattle Seahawks’ overachieving young defense and their Flutie-esque quarterback Russell Wilson against the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers, their all-world bombardier under center. Rodgers spent most of the game running for his life behind an offensive line that couldn’t protect a Romney lead in a Rasmussen poll, but the Pack’s defense kept it close, and in the fourth quarter Rodgers engineered a 16-play, 81-yard sequence ending with a touchdown that put them up 12–7.

With less than a minute left in the game, the rookie Wilson came onto the field to lead Seattle on a last-chance power drive. He quickly hit Sidney Rice for 22 yards and a first down, but then threw three straight incompletions to bring up a do-or-die fourth and long from the 24. Wilson lined up in a shotgun formation with three receivers to his right and one split wide to the left. As the pocket collapsed almost instantly, Wilson scrambled backward, backward, rolling to his left, setting his feet and, as time expired, lobbing a Hail Mary into the back corner of the end zone just as a Packers defensive end closed in for the sack.

#ad#What happened next you probably already know. The pass was clearly picked off by Packers safety M. D. Jennings, but one of the replacement referees hired by the league after locking out the real refs awarded ’Hawks receiver Golden Tate with a bogus “simultaneous catch.” Under NFL rules, the tie goes to the receiver, and the Hawks found themselves with their hands on stolen property in the form of an unlikely 14–12 win. The Packers, disgusted and enraged, stormed off the field practically before the extra point was even kicked. The football world exploded, and exploded again when the league stood by the replacement official’s call.

Less than 48 hours later came the first reports that the NFL and the referees’ union had reached a tentative deal, subject to a union vote on Saturday in Dallas.

So what did we learn from the messy lockout and its abrupt conclusion? Here are five things, for starters

One: There’s a difference between a strike and a lockout.

The dispute between the league and the refs centered on ordinary, perennial collective bargaining issues: hours and job description, pay raises, changes to pension structure. In fact, they are essentially the same issues that separated the Chicago school board from the Chicago Teachers Union. But optically, the two situations are completely different. The CTU initiated a strike, forcing half a million kids out of their classrooms. The NFL refs were locked out by the league. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it, a lockout is a “withholding or denial of employment during a labor dispute in order to enforce terms of employment upon a group of employees.” The key is it’s initiated by management. Whether the refs went on strike or were locked out wouldn’t have changed the fact that they wanted more than the league was willing to give, but the fact that the league shot first definitely affected the way sportscasters, fans, and even NFL players discussed the dispute publicly. It immediately put the league on the defensive, and the longer the lockout dragged on the worse it got.

Two: Demand is inelastic until it ain’t. 

Basically everything the NFL did during the lockout can be understood in terms of their assumptions about the elasticity of demand for football. Or in this case, their assumptions about the inelasticity of said demand. As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic plausibly, though it turned out incorrectly, argued the day after the Packers–Seahawks debacle, the league had no incentive to give in to the refs when ratings — including ratings for the Packers–’Hawks game on Monday Night Football — were up eight percent year-on-year. But product quality matters, and within hours it became clear to just about everybody that the intertouchdownception had badly hurt people’s perception of the quality of the NFL’s product. The world’s demand for football is insatiable, but so was its demand for Chevrolets, once upon a time. The league’s assumptions about future demand clearly changed quickly, and their incentives to settle changed with them.

Three: If you don’t want to be replaced, be irreplaceable.

When a union is on strike or locked out, it’s common, where feasible, for management to hire replacement labor — the dread and despised “scabs.” Scab hating, along with scab-intimidating, scab-threatening, and scab-injuring, is a significant part of unions’ long and checkered history in America. And it’s understandable. The biggest threat to a striking union is a pool of people willing to do the same job for less — in other words, a normally functioning labor market. But the locked-out NFL refs didn’t have to resort to heckling their replacements or throwing bricks through their living-room windows. Instead, the union put the scabs out on their butts by simply letting them go out and try to do the job.  The real refs irreplaceability became self-evident, and there was no need to, say, funnel their dues into a massive lobbying operation called Americans for Great Refs. The replacement refs ticked off the customers by blowing calls, and management beclowned itself by standing by them. And then presto, change-o: a settlement.

Four: All other things being equal, you’re worth every cent of what you make, and not a cent more.

This is related to No. 2. At some point, it dawned on league officials that the referees were worth more than they originally thought. The officials didn’t have a “change of heart”; they had a change of calculus. They didn’t come to sympathize with the refs’ way of seeing things; they discovered something about the market. The refs won’t be getting a raise because they’re “an important part of the fabric of America,” or “because every referee deserves a shot at a middle-class life.” They’ll be getting a raise because the market will bear it.

Five: The refs should have hired AFSCME’s lawyers.

If my math is right, the referees have tentatively agreed to pay increases that work out to just over 4 percent per annum. For a point of reference, that’s a deal that Chicago teachers rejected out of hand. The refs have also tentatively agreed to freeze their current defined-benefit pension system and transition to a defined-contribution system. This is the kind of major reform that is pitting cash-strapped states and municipalities against public-sector unions across the country. We’re talking about a couple hundred beneficiaries and a league that can afford to ride out some market fluctuations and accounting goofs while meeting its pension obligations. And yet the public-sector unions, with multiples more beneficiaries and exponentially more in unfunded liabilities, is fighting tooth and nail to keep their bloated pensions. And it’s not like the DMV has a million hits on a YouTube video of some scab flubbing a drivers’-license photo, either.

— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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