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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine, and is author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love

September 27th, 2012 11:41 AM

It's Over: The NFL's Union Referees Return to Work in Style

The NFL referee lockout is over and we now have an answer to the question, "What does it take to pierce the shame-free cocoon of unreality where NFL owners reside?" All you need, it seems, is condemnation across the political spectrum ranging from the President of the United States to small-town mayors, to even anti-union corporate lickspittles like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. All you need is one of your flagship teams, the Green Bay Packers, publicly threatening to strike or "take a knee on every play." All you need are your star quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees blasting your product. All you need are online petitions with miles of signatures and 70,000 fans calling the league offices in the 24 hours following the debacle of a Monday night game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. All of this collective scorn finally punctured the owners' magical mental space, bringing them to the negotiating table to settle.

The deal is damn near a slam dunk for the NFL referees. Remember the root of this lockout was two-fold: the league wanted to end the pension system and ban refs from holding jobs outside of the sport. Now the league will continue—and even increase—the pension payouts for the next five years before a negotiated transfer to a 401K. Refs will also be given a 25% hike in pay starting next year, with more salary increases until the end of the seven-year agreement. The NFL owners wanted to hire 21 more officials to phase in as full-time employees. The refs agreed to seven new full-time hires, and no restrictions on their own abilities to take outside work. In other words, Roger Goodell and the owners were shellacked by the same people they locked out, dismissed, and disrespected. The now infamous words of NFL VP Ray Anderson, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch someone officiate a game", is now the league’s version of “You’re doing a heckuva job Brownie.”

But there is a bigger story here as well: the entire country received a High Def, prime time lesson in the difference between skilled, union labor and a ramshackle operation of unskilled scabs. When Scott Walker is sticking up for the union, you know we've arrived at a teachable moment worth shouting from the hills. People who care about stable jobs with benefits and reversing the tide of inequality in the United States should seize this moment. We should ask not only the Scott Walkers of the world but politicians of both parties drinking from the same neoliberal fever-swamp: why do you think we need skilled union labor on the football field but not in our firehouses, our classrooms, or even our uranium facilities? Similarly players need to be asking questions to the owners: how can you actually posture like you care about our health and safety ever again after subjecting us to this hazardous environment the first three weeks of the season, or as Drew Brees tweeted, "Ironic that our league punishes those based on conduct detrimental. Whose CONDUCT is DETRIMENTAL now?"

Lastly, it's another embarrassment after a year of embarrassments, for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He has through his arrogance placed an asterisk on this season, left an indelible mark on his legacy as commissioner, and created a crisis of confidence in his ability to do his job. He learned that people may not pay to watch referees but they do pay to watch a competently officiated contest. He also hopefully learned that if there's one thing people don't pay to watch, it's him: sweating before the cameras and doing his damnedest to make the NFL a reflection of the worst corporate arrogance. Hear the message Roger. This nine billion dollar league? This unprecedented popularity? This immense national audience? You didn't build that. Your owners didn't build that. Your sponsors didn't build that. It was built by the blood, sweat, and tears of those on the field of play including the referees. It was built by fans who invest their passion and the tax payers who have underwritten your archipelago of mega-domes in cities across the country. I can't wait for the union refs to be cheered when they take the field this weekend. We may go back to booing them after the first play, but it will be with respect: respect earned because they stood as one  and beat the NFL bosses.

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