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


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 They've been replaced by refs whose experience comes from places like the Lingerie Football League.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.

As New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse wrote this winter, the number of strikes has fallen to just one-sixth the level of 20 years ago, while lockouts have grown to a record rate. Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, told Greenhouse:

 This is a sign of increased employer militancy. Lockouts were once so rare they were almost unheard of. Now, not only are employers increasingly on the offensive and trying to call the shots in bargaining, but they’re backing that up with action — in the form of lockouts.

And just like the NFL and NHL, the corporations locking out workers across the US are doing just fine; in some cases making record profits and paying their executives record salaries. They're simply taking advantage of an anti-union political climate and high unemployment -- which makes it easier to find replacement workers -- to pressure workers to give in.

Replacement workers can legally be paid less, though they can't be hired as permanent replacements. In the case of the NFL referees, finding replacement workers seems to have been easy, though their competence is questioned more and more each week; in the case of the players in the NHL or other leagues, they're pressured not by replacements but by the ticking clock on their own career. DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL players union, told Greenhouse, “A lot of players have careers of two or three years, and you might get a player who asks, ‘At what point is this fight worth one-third of my career?’”

3. Safety matters. Those careers are short because players, particularly in hockey and football, put their bodies on the line every time they take to the ice or the field. Hits are part of the game, as much so as dazzling athleticism. We gasp when a body hits the boards, when a slip or a dodge to the wrong side lands a player at the bottom of a pile of bodies, and we cheer when they get back up, seemingly uninjured, and keep playing.

As Travis Waldron at ThinkProgress put it:

I realized this weekend, during college football’s opening weekend, that I can’t watch the game the way I used to. Not after a summer filled with reports about the dangers of the game, a suicide perhaps caused by concussion-related depression, and a dispute over player safety. I notice every bone-crushing hit, every whip of the head, every helmet-to-helmet clash in a way I never have before, and I wince not just because my favorite team’s best player might be hurt, but because somewhere, at some level, young men are racking up seemingly routine hits that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

The NFL and NHL have both come under fire in recent years for the amount of injuries, specifically concussions, that players face. But the NFL's commitment to safety is especially suspect when they're willing to roll the dice on their players' safety by loading the field with inexperienced refs who have trouble controlling the game.

Those short careers and wild health risks are why the players make the big bucks, and even then only a few superstars are pocketing millions. As Erik Loomis said back in 2010, “These guys are America’s gladiators. A few are stars, but a lot sacrifice themselves in relative anonymity and risk long-term harm. A high salary is the least they deserve, particularly given the wealth of the owners.” The responsibility for their lives falls on refs who make much less. And the owners are willing to risk all that to save themselves a few grand.

4. The owners epitomize the 1 percent. So who are these owners, anyway? They're the billionaires, not just the 1 percent but the .001 percent -- what Timothy Noah calls “stinking rich.” James Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, has a net worth of $1.5 billion; Jeremy Jacobs, the hardline owner of the Boston Bruins – who's leading the charge for concessions from the players (and a leader in forcing the last lockout, too) -- is worth about $2.7 billion, largely from selling snacks and beer at sporting arenas. And they're making bank on the game, too—the NHL is back to excellent shape after the season-ending 2004-2005 lockout, after which the owners got pretty much everything they wanted. And we've already noted how little the NFL's refs cost the league in relation to its revenues. Could there be an ideological reason these ultra-wealthy businessmen want to break the unions?

Take Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider. He's the chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, which is partially owned by Comcast—yes, the media conglomerate that pays the NHL's TV contract. Snider was one of the founders of the Ayn Rand Institute in 1985; after a split within the “movement,” he became a supporter of the Atlas Society, the same place where Paul Ryan gave his speech calling for the end of Medicare. He was the executive producer of the Atlas Shrugged film and has publicly stated that “Capitalists build up business so that they can give weaker members of society jobs.”

As Larry Brooks at the New York Post noted in the run-up to the lockout, owners like Snider have been loading up on talented players and signing fat contracts full of bonuses they never intend to pay:

Here is “Mr. Snider” agreeing to pay Weber $52 million in signing bonuses within the next three calendar years while engaged in an effort to prevent players from receiving even a nickel in signing bonuses going forward.

Here is “Mr. Snider” using his financial might to bulk up the Flyers while at the same time pledging to bankroll a lockout in order to stop the competition from ever doing this again.

For you see, Snider’s NBC/Comcast television contract with the NHL calls for the network to pay the league in full for this season — believed between $150 million and $160 million — even if 2012-13 is canceled in full.

These disputes are too often written off as rich guys fighting amongst themselves, but it's simply not fair to compare the average NHL salary of around $2.4 million (the floor is around $525,000) to the money the owners have. These are some of the richest men in the world, and they show the same contempt for their employees whether they be referees or star players.

5. All pretense of necessity is off. Did I mention that the leagues are doing great? Because they are. Like most of the U.S.'s big businesses in the years following economic crisis, professional sports are making money hand over fist. The average NFL team is worth some $1.1 billion, Dave Jamieson at the Huffington Post notes, and even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't pretend that paying the refs decently would break them. Instead, the sticking point has become the pension plan the league has long had—like so many other corporations, the NFL wants to switch the refs to a 401(k) plan. "A lot of our guys have made life-career decisions based on assuming that pension would be there,” Scott Green of the NFL Referees Association told Jamieson.

And the NHL? Well, their biggest problem is actually that the owners won't make nice with one another. James Mirtle at the Globe and Mail explains, “The NHL as a whole, in other words, now makes money – and if revenues were 100 percent shared among owners, they’d all be profitable.”

Mirtle notes that the bottom 10 teams in the league (in such notorious hockey cities as Phoenix) aren't making enough money to cover expenses, while the rich teams have little interest in sharing revenue the way, say, the NFL or Major League Baseball do.

“It’s an owner versus owner problem more than it is an owner versus player one,” Mirtle writes, but as a player agent tells him, “Owners would rather try to pound on players than pound on each other.”

Back in 2004, the league was struggling and the owners at least had an argument for shutting down the entire season. But it took years for the league to recover from that lockout; it appears that the owners are willing to shoot themselves in the foot in order to smack the players down one more time.

6. A labor issue your anti-union relatives will understand. With all that said, it's a fact that many people still can't dredge up a lot of sympathy for people making a lot more money than most of us do. At a time when teachers' salaries are decried as too high even by liberal writers, it's pretty hard to convince even sports fans that they should sympathize with athletes who make up to $10 million a year.

Yet the referees lockout might finally serve as an object lesson. It's much easier to find some sympathy for part-time employees who make, while a healthy salary, a tiny one in comparison to both th owners and the players. And watching the game each week as replacement officials bungle calls and lose control of the field is growing more and more painful. Sports sites like Deadspin set up a “scabwatch” and a Change.org petition has started making the rounds calling on the league to bring back the real refs.

As Jeff MacGregor wrote in one of the most eloquent defenses not just of the refs, but of labor unions:

You know that your leisure to watch an NFL game on Sunday was argued and bargained and fought for by unions, right? That the wages you spent on that game-day flatscreen were argued and bargained and fought for by unions, right? That your standing as a member of the American middle-class was argued and bargained and fought for by 200 years of collective effort and sacrifice and blood on the part of folks just like you, right?

Or maybe you don't. Maybe we've lost the habit of looking out for each other. Of empathy. Fellow feeling. Of picturing ourselves in another guy's shoes. When did we decide it made sense to give up on each other?

Next kickoff, maybe think of it this way: That referee, that back judge, that stranger down there on the field running as hard as he can to keep up with the millionaires but falling farther behind with every step? Maybe that's us.

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