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6 Major Reasons You Should Care About the Labor Battles in Professional Sports

Sports labor battles result in some of the only nationwide, well-publicized discussions of union negotiations and union busting.

Yelling at the refs is a time-honored tradition in sports, but it's been brought to a new level this season in the National Football League, as the experienced, unionized referees have been locked out by the league since the beginning of August. They've been replaced by refs whose experience comes from places like the Lingerie Football League. Replacement refs have so far been removed from games for open support for one of the teams, made mistakes over which team was on the field, and one reportedly told a player “I need you for my fantasy team!”

But now there's another sports lockout to worry about, and in this case the target might have a little bit more ammo on their side. The National Hockey League has just locked out its players (for the second time in less than 10 years) despite healthy revenues and a sweet new television contract. While several players have already signed deals to play overseas, the possible loss of an entire season is a big blow not only to athletes who have limited careers, but to fans.

People commonly write off sports labor disputes as “Millionaires fighting billionaires.” It can be hard for the average working person to feel bad for the rich players whose massive salaries make front-page news. But sports labor battles result in some of the only nationwide, well-publicized discussions of union negotiations and union busting. This year's lockouts are particularly egregious examples of the latter. Locking out the refs, Dave Zirin and Mike Elk at the Nation said, “is like using an Uzi on a field mouse.”

Why should you care about these lockouts? Here's a quick rundown:

1. Lockout, not strike. Many people mistakenly call any work stoppage in professional sports a strike. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Brad Kurtzberg at Bleacher Report wrote, “Nobody is more responsible right now for the fact that we do not have NHL hockey than the owners.”

A lockout is a decision by management to shut workers out of their job in an attempt to force their union to concede, usually on wages or benefits. In the case of the NFL, the referees' jobs have been filled by less-qualified workers -- scabs, in the old union parlance, a word that's fallen out of favor in recent years but still maintains a whole lot of power in the right context. They will do the job for less and don't mind helping the owners bust a union's power. It's easy to hate the scab refs or to mock them, but Barry Petchesky at Deadspin reminds us that ultimately, the rage should be directed at the owners, who, as Zirin and Elk note, stand to save $62,000 per team if they break the union and get everything they want.

It's an important distinction to note that most criticism of the replacement officials is directed not at them, but at the league for forcing it to come to this point. We know the refs are doing the best they can; we know they're just not prepared. (More than getting the calls right, memorizing the rule book and keeping control of the game is hard. It takes years of experience.)

In the case of the NHL, the latest collective bargaining agreement between the players' union and the owners is up. The players were willing to continue playing without a contract as long as negotiations were continuing, but the owners, it appears, would rather cancel games and lose money than allow the players to look sympathetic.

2. Lockouts are on the rise around the country. It's important to talk about the difference between a strike and a lockout because lockouts are on the rise, and not just in professional sports.

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