The NFL’s Game Plan: Crush the Union

Sept. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Let me ask this in the simplest possible way: What in the name of God is the National Football League doing?

Here we are, hurtling toward Week 4, and the NFL is continuing to lock out its referees. The league appears perfectly content to leave the job to a cast of bumbling replacements, who seem to be getting worse with experience.

On Sunday, we saw games drag on endlessly, as hapless referees huddled together to parse plays like groups of Foot Locker salesmen studying the takeout menu for Panda Express. We saw random acts of low comedy. We saw a game that should be getting more tightly policed, especially to prevent the possibility of head injuries, become infinitely less so.

Then, of course, came last night’s Lucy Ricardo finale: The replacements botched the final call of the Seattle Seahawks-Green Bay Packers game, and after taking 10 minutes to review and reconsider, upheld their decision. Fans groaned, aspiring comedians tweeted one-liners (“Replacement refs overrule WWII. Germans won, covered.”), and gamblers broke the nearest available object (or, if they had the Seahawks and 3 1/2 points, French-kissed their bookies).

So egregious was last night’s gaffe that a former employer of some of the replacement refs, an outfit known as the Lingerie Football League, felt compelled to distance itself from them, lest their league, in which women play tackle football in bras and panties, lose its “credibility.”

Mere Millions

What’s next? Outsourcing the officiating to Bangalore? Repurposing the refs from “Madden NFL 13”?

At least during last year’s NFL player lockout, there were billions of dollars at stake. That’s not the case with the referees. The two sides are mere millions apart in terms of compensation; the real sticking point is pensions. The NFL wants to shift the referees from a defined benefit plan to a 401(k) and cut its contribution. The union has proposed keeping the defined benefit plan for all existing referees and shifting to 401(k)s for new hires.

The numbers at stake -- referees earn about $150,000 a year -- qualify as rounding errors on the NFL’s balance sheet, which shows annual revenue of about $9 billion. That’s before a huge new TV contract goes into effect in 2014.

NFL referees are not, admittedly, the most sympathetic bunch. They earn more than most people make in a year for what is essentially a part-time job, and (though it’s easy to forget this now) they blow their share of calls. It’s also easy to make the case that employees should be held accountable for their work (another sticking point: The NFL wants to introduce a performance-based assignment system). And it is true that very few employers are offering defined-benefit pensions these days.

But the NFL is not a dying Midwestern state with soaring unemployment, a shrinking tax base and an underfunded employee-pension plan. It is the largest, most profitable sports conglomerate in the U.S., one in which a good percentage of the owners are worth at least $1 billion.

So the question presents itself again, and this time I will employ an NFL-friendly metaphor: What exactly is the league’s game plan? In the short term, the NFL is degrading its product. In the long term, it is eroding its goodwill -- a resource that is likely to become ever more precious as we learn more about the chronic dangers of playing the game.

It follows that the NFL should be trying hard to at least look like a benevolent force -- magnanimous, generous, concerned about its players’ safety. Instead, the safety concern the league has expressed is for replacement referees dealing with rage-fueled coaches.

Uncommon Outrage

Given the outraged reaction to last night’s game -- even among sworn enemies of the Packers, such as members of the Minnesota Vikings -- it’s not too far-fetched to imagine a player boycott. The players could argue that the NFL has violated their collective-bargaining agreement by creating an unsafe workplace.

Hall of Fame quarterback (and accounting major) Steve Young argued last week in his now-famous post-“Monday Night Football” disquisition that the NFL’s game plan is actually simple. “Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand,” he said. Translation: As long as fans still show up at the stadiums and tune in to the games, the league has no incentive to make a deal.

Assume Young is right: The NFL’s powers-that-be “just don’t care,” and Americans are truly addicted to pro football. His argument still only takes you so far.

After all, if the league’s owners really didn’t care, why not just settle? Why not slap the mosquito that has inconveniently landed on their collective arm and get back to stuffing their bags full of money? If they don’t want to absorb the almost imperceptible effect on their bottom line, they can simply pass on the added costs to their loyal fans.

It might be that the NFL’s owners care too much -- not about money but about ideology. For many of them, this is a proxy battle, and they are apparently so dead-set on labor capitulating to management that they’re willing to treat their own business -- and the welfare of their employees -- as collateral damage.

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to the New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” “The Challenge,” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Mahler at or @jonathanmahler on Twitter.

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