The NFL referees, and organized Labor

So now that the NFL referees lockout is over, I decide to write about it.  Can’t beat that for timing.

Thing is, I’m not much into football.  I love sports, and I used to love football, especially as played in our back yard with my brothers and our friends.  Tackle football on a narrow back yard liberally festooned with dog poop; it just doesn’t get better than that.  I used to love BYU football, and still follow it, some.  Still root for the 49ers.  Kind of.  But the greatest player in BYU football history, Jim McMahon was just featured in Sports Illustrated.  He’s my age, and he can remember the names of his children about half the time.  So I’m conflicted.Still watch. Wonder if I should.

But then the guys who referee NFL games got locked out by the league in a labor dispute, and much high comedy ensued. The ineffable Bill Simmons had a lot of fun with it.  The replacement refs were really bad.  One, apparently, told one of the players that he (the player) was on his (the refs) fantasy football league.  Another had once reffed in the Lingerie Football league (yes, that’s a real thing, football played by models in lingerie), and had been let go! He wasn’t a good enough ref to work games played by pretty girls in high heels and skimpy undies. Last Monday, on the final play of the Seahawks Packers game, a Hail Mary pass from Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was caught in the end zone by Packers safety MD Jennings, with Seahawks receiver Golden Tate kinda trying to get a hand on it, having previously committed an egregious offensive pass interference infraction.  Somehow the replacement ref called it a game winning touchdown for Tate.  The game was in Seattle, and the ref in question made 60,000 instant highly vocal best friends with his ridiculous call.  One hallmark of a good ref, of course, is a willingness to piss off the home crowd.

After the Monday Night game, ESPN blew up.  SportsCenter, which ESPN airs 17 times a day as mandated by federal law, devoted 53 of its 60 minutes to that one play (authorial estimate), achieving absolute unanimity of opinion: the league needed to back down, scab reffing was a disaster.  The comic highlight came when Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, previously known for his efforts to bust public employee unions in his fine state, found himself weighing in on a national labor dispute on the side of . . . labor.  President Obama chimed in.  So did Governor Romney, and Congressman Ryan opined that the replacement refs offered a similar lack of competence to that shown by the Obama administration.

So the League folded. Tossed in their cards, raised the white flag. The main issue at stake had to do with pensions.  The league had switched all its employees to a 401(k) based system, and the refs didn’t want to switch.  Thought they’d lose retirement benefits.  Turns out, they would have. Not anymore. So now the League gets the good refs back, and Scott Walker can go back to his scorched earth anti-union tactics, and Roger Goodell (NFL commissioner) may want to stay away from Green Bay Wisconsin for awhile.  It’s done.  And last night, Thursday night football, the refs got a standing ovation.

But see here’s the thing.  I have two brothers who are businessmen; in most labor/management disputes, they tend to favor management.  I favor unions.  All the time, without fail, that’s how my knee jerks.  I’m not talking about policy issues, or do unions hurt or help America, or gosh, those greedy public service unions are destroying California and will consume our entire nation if we’re not careful.  I’m not talking economics.  I’m talking viscerally, emotionally, what happens in your gut.  If I hear labor v. management, I’m always taking the side of labor. Probably some time later, I’ll occasionally back down a little, when I’ve been presented with cogent, reasonable, evidence-based arguments.  Not often.

But one of the most (if not THE most) inspiring stories in American history is the story of American labor. The most powerful stories, the most tragic and awful events, the magnificent larger-than-life characters.  It still shocks me that TV hasn’t done something with it.  Ken Burns did such a wonderful job with The Civil War, and Baseball, and Jazz; why hasn’t he done Labor?  What about a major TV mini-series?  History network just did a terrific show about the Hatfields and McCoys.  Watched the whole thing, thought it was great.  Why not Labor?

The characters: Samuel Gompers and Eugene Debs, Cesar Chavez and Wild Bill Haywood.  The Pullman Strike, and the Coal Strike of 1902 and Haywood’s murder trial in Idaho and the rise of the IWW.  These are incredible stories!  There have already been these great movies: Norma Rae and Silkwood and Matewan. Made in Dagenham and Billy Elliot and North Country and heck, even The Grapes of Wrath! I mean, even Disney got into the act, with I still think one of their greatest movies, Newsies!

The story of the NFL refs is sort of silly in comparison.  But unions have never been weaker than right now, and anti-union sentiment fires up the Republican base, while pro-union feeling doesn’t animate the Democratic party to anywhere near the degree it used to.  And at a time when income inequality has never been greater, the rich getting richer and the poor hanging on and the middle class slowly losing ground, unions are considered anachronistic, and still not favored as a viable part of a solution. There’s not talk anymore about organizing, you know, Walmart and McDonalds and Target and Wendys and Subway and convenience store workers and call center employees.  Or all of them; the United Federation of Service Employees. We should.  It would be good for America. But it won’t happen in my lifetime.  So that’s depressing.

A video surfaced recently, Obama talking about the redistribution of wealth.  He was for it, back in 1998.  And Fox News and the Romney campaign pounced, with cries of ‘socialism!’  But government always redistributes wealth.  Always shows favoritism, through tax policy and subsidies and loan guarantees and laws favoring certain companies.  So government welfare is bad?  We should boot out the free-loaders, make them take personal responsibility for their lives?  Yes!  We should.  And let’s start with Archer-Daniels-Midland and Exxon and GE and IBM.

And then unionize K-Mart.

That’s not going to happen.  But hey, at least the refs thing worked out.  It’s nice to see the good guys win every once in awhile.

One thought on “The NFL referees, and organized Labor

  1. Farmer Rick

    Thank goodness the strike is over. We will always be indebted to folks like Eugene Debs and Cesar Chavez and the Labor movement. I at one time belonged to a union and yes though times have changed. The Labor movement is not what it once was. Although I still believe they have more to crow about, than the governments welfare handed out to the major corporations you mention


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