By E.J. Dionne Jr.
When even Scott Walker and Paul Ryan kind-of, sort-of side with labor against management, who knows what else is possible? Maybe they’ll endorse tax increases and say nice things about teachers unions.
For friends of labor, the revolt against the National Football League’s replacement refs is the most remarkable event since the organization of Henry Ford’s car company into the United Auto Workers union. And, really, could there be a better object lesson in the arrogance of the very rich and the value of the labor performed by line workers whose contributions usually go unnoticed and unappreciated? No wonder the NFL finally seems eager for a deal.
The contempt that pampered owners feel for the referees was nicely captured last month by Ray Anderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game,” Anderson said.
Let’s parse this. What it leaves out is that the game people pay to watch cannot be played well without highly competent and trained referees. The human beings Anderson relegated to insignificance matter after all, especially to the health and well-being of the players fans very much want to watch.
Maybe now there will be a new appreciation of what the words “worker safety” mean. Will it take a severe injury to a star to force the owners off their hard line? That may have been on the mind of Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, who, to his great credit, told ESPN Radio: “The game is being tarnished by an NFL [that] obviously cares more about saving some money than having the integrity of the game diminished.”
I doubt Rodgers is surprised, given that the owners regularly refer to the game loved by tens of millions of Americans—myself included—with a term no doubt invented by some overpaid management consultant: the “product.” What a wonderful way of taking the game out of the game, robbing it of all human feeling and all human responsibility.
The Executive Committee of the NFL Players Association noted this last week in a scathing letter to the owners calling for an end to the referee lockout and charging that “there is substantial evidence that you have failed in your obligation to provide as safe a working environment as possible.”
The letter continued: “As players, we see this game as more than the ‘product’ you reference at times. You cannot simply switch to a group of cheaper officials and fulfill your legal, moral and duty obligations to us and our fans.”
It’s entertaining to see Walker, the nation’s best-known union-buster, and his Wisconsin pal Ryan feel suddenly moved to call for a return of the real refs after their dear Packers were robbed of victory against the Seattle Seahawks by the blown call heard ‘round the world on Monday night. But will they take the next step and call out the Republican-leaning ownership of the NFL to give ground? I wouldn’t bet an Aaron Rodgers autograph on that.
I do feel Walker’s and Ryan’s pain, since my dear New England Patriots have been hurt by bad calls, too. In fairness, though, it’s also true that the Patriots-Baltimore Ravens game I stayed up late to watch on Sunday was such a festival of officiating incompetence that it had a curiously fair-and-balanced quality. I’m not watching anymore until the owners settle. The cost of giving the real refs everything they want, according to The New York Times, would run to about $3.2 million out of $9 billion in overall revenue—and just 0.08 percent of the NFL’s television and cable contracts alone. Have you heard the phrase “corporate greed”?
And, while I rarely bring my children into columns, my 19-year-old son James, a huge football lover and Obama supporter, inspired me with an email wondering why the president hasn’t taken an even stronger stand on behalf of the union. President Obama has called for a return of the real refs, but by doing more, my son argued, he could underscore many of the points he has been making about inequality—plus, he “carries Wisconsin by like 20 points.”
Two owners, Robert Kraft of the Patriots and Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, have dissented from the view of many of their colleagues by supporting Obama. The president should phone them urging that they tell the hard-liners to accept a deal that’s reportedly within reach. That would be a call we could believe in.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group
Photo by Ed Yourdon (CC-BY-SA)