Why are the NFL Refs Locked Out? It's All in the Game

Although anathema to NFL fans across the country, we should recognize that sometimes a punter shall lead us. It was Minnesota Viking’s punter Chris Kluwe who took to twitter and said what has been so painfully obvious through three weeks of the National Football League's pre-season: “The NFL really needs to kiss and make up with the refs. These replacements are horrible. Frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing.”

Kluwe is correct. It is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that replacement referees with highlights on their resumes like working for the Lingerie Football League have been bungling calls throughout the pre-season. This has included screwing up the small detail of which teams were actually on the field. It’s embarrassing that in a league where any play could be the last time someone walks without a limp or concussion, these incompetents are in charge of monitoring the health and safety of players. It’s embarrassing that members of the NFL Players Association, who are part of the AFL-CIO, will, once on the field, be under the authority of scabs.

It’s also bewildering. Consider the multi-billion dollar entity that is the National Football League. Then consider that NFL referees are 119 part time employees who make $8,000 a week. As Jeff MacGregor calculated at espn.com, at a cost of $50 million a year -- less than one percent of total revenue – NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell  could hire 200 full-time officials at $250,000 a year. Conversely, if Goodell gets everything he wants from the referees union and he doesn't have to spend too much in legal fees, it works out to league-wide savings of just $62,000 per team.

Locking them out is like using an Uzi on a field mouse. The question once again is why? Why has NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, taken such a hard line? After a year defined by the tragic suicides of former players suffering from post-concussion syndrome and a looming lawsuit brought by 2000 former players contending that the NFL didn’t take their safety seriously, why would they engage in such naked contempt for the well-being of players and the integrity of their game? Simply put, because they can.

The NFL clearly believes with no small amount of justification that they can do this because no one will care. As NFL VP Ray Anderson said, perhaps while twirling his mustache, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch someone officiate a game."

The only way to understand why there is a lockout of NFL Referees is to understand who is doing the locking out. It’s not Roger Goodell, who for all the fawning media profiles, is little more than an exceptionally well-paid executive “flak-catcher." It’s the people he represents. NFL teams are no longer family businesses and owners are no longer kindly patriarchs. They comprise the right-wing edge of America’s super rich. NFL owners don’t travel in the same circles as Mitt Romney. They travel in the circles of those who underwrite Mitt Romney’s campaign.

For these 21st century Masters of the Universe, the lockout, once a near-unthinkable labor-management tactic, has become the weapon of choice when dealing with what’s left of the trade union movement. Since 2010, the number of lockouts annually in the US has doubled.  A lockout gives employers the power to strip workers of their salaries,bring in temporary replacements and then simply wait until the day locked out workers eat through their meager savings and then force them back on the conditions of outlandish demands. It's a management tactic that has hammered thousands of families from middle class security to destitution.

The owners have decided NFL referees need to be locked out because like the scorpion who stings, that’s simply what they do. Look at the demands being made of the referees: NFL owners want them to stop being part-time labor and instead work full-time for the league. Sounds great, except they want the refs to eliminate their other sources of income while taking a 16% cut in salary. They also want to eliminate their pensions and replace them with 401k plans tied to the stock market. Put simply, the owners line is less pay, less benefits, and if you don’t like it we’re locking the doors.

 “They told us if we didn't take what was on the table, they would cut it more and they have. They have disguised regressive bargaining as trying to improve officiating overall and to give people more time off," said NFL Referee’s Association lead negotiator Mike Arnold. “They keep saying in the media that they were willing, able, and ready to negotiate, but they kept telling us they weren’t interested in discussing our proposal and if the deal was going to settle it was going to settle on their terms.”

The referees and the NFL Players Association both seem to be keeping any joint strategy under wraps. “We’ll see what the decision is as we get closer to [opening] day,” NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth told PFT Live. “Hopefully, they can figure this out in an amicable way as soon as possible.  I’m not sure what the decision is going to be from the Players Association when that day comes.”

9 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Dental plan

Seems they need a dental plan more.

Hey demagogue Dave, the nancy grace of sports, why did you ignore the medical report on Junior Seau finding no brain damage?

You like to smear others without checking facts -- or just ignore them when they contradict your demogogic junk. You are not a serious person or writer -- just a spoiled phony radical from the upper west side.

Seau's Brain

Tornado, the autopsy revealed no brain damage, but an autopsy cannot find evidence of CTE and brain damage suche as what he likely suffered from doesn't present physically to an autopsy at his early age. The results have not come back yet.

Birds of a feather

What bothers me is why doesn't the NFLPA take a real stand and call a 1 or 2 day sympathy walkout in support of the refs? And they could do this just before the start of the regular season. Heck they could cancel the last preseason game and save a lot of money for the fans. DZ has correctly pointed out the concussion problem plaguing the NFL, and the scab refs will only compound the issue. But no the NFLPA only blathers about trying to find an "amicable way as soon as possible." What this illustrates is that the NFLPA talks about safety but it won't jeopardize their own standing with the NFL. Their inaction puts them in cahoots with the greedy owners. Shame on them.


For what it's worth, DeMaurice Smith has presented a possible player strike if the NFL doesn't settle the matter. Getting 800 people to go along with an impromptu move isn't easy, so I doubt the PA follows through on it, but it is on the table.

Funny thing about the referee rowdy-dow is that we never seem to hear how great regular referees are until they're absent from the game. Every weekend of game action there will be at least one game where the major detail is about how officials butchered a call.


Anderson was wrong. People do pay to see NFL refs officiate. It's part of the game, and it's an indispensable part that can affect the "product." NFL owners know that. Substitute refs degrade the game. Zirin is right - the owners are like that because they are super rich owners and that is how their class treat workers who stand up for a piece of the pie. It's certainly not the money - $250,000 is a pittance to them. As for the players' Union - I guess it doesn't mean anything that they are in the AFL-CIO. After a couple of weeks of crappy officiating, maybe the fans themselves will demand that the owners settle.

Forget the labor/safety issues

Those don't matter much to the NFL. However, when a series of screwed up calls by the replacement refs affects gambling results, you'll see a swift resolution of the impasse.

Money Rules

Scott may be on to something

Rule of Law

Of COURSE people buy tickets to see officials referee games. Its why I go to a FOOTBALL game, not baseball....I expect the referees to uphold the rules of football that are there to maintain a safe, even playing field. When that field is no longer safe or even, the product is sub-par. Reminds me of the importance of the rule of law in our country, in that everyone is held to the same standards in order to ensure equality, much like we have today. Oh wait....

Edge of Sports

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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