Now that our long national nightmare is over we can look back at the dispute between the NFL and the officials and see the big picture. Here are, in no particular order, five things learned from the lock out of the NFL’s officials.
Good Refs are Hard to Come By
Being a top quality NFL official requires a very specific skill set, experience, temperament, and judgment. For all the talk about how much they make verses how often they work, the question really comes down to a very rudimentary notion of supply and demand. There are not a lot of people that can do this job at the level that it needs to be done and they should be paid accordingly. You know what else is really expensive? Replacement parts for a Rolls Royce. For nearly a quarter of the season, we essentially had Pinto parts running the engine of the Rolls Royce that is the NFL. If the replacement refs weren’t an absolute debacle, then negotiations would still be going on or called off altogether.
Besides the important and rare skills that officials bring to the table, they are the ones primarily in charge of a very hot button issue in today’s NFL: safety. They control the pace of the game, establish which hits are appropriate and which are not, and diffuse anger among the players. This is not a small job and while it may not be something that you see specifically when watching at home, it has huge ramifications on the game.
Public Perception is Fickle
Refs can move from being a pariah of the sport to being seen as the guardians of the integrity of the game. An argument that kept being made from the League’s perspective was that even with replacement refs, people were still tuning in to the games in huge numbers and attendance hadn’t suffered. Therefore, the argument was that it didn’t matter. This is the kind of short-sightedness that has become a problem in the upper management of the NFL in recent years. While the number of eyeballs watching the games did not decrease, the brains attached to those eyeballs knew they weren’t getting the same product they were accustomed to.
The NFL Has a Responsibility to its Fans and Partners
The NFL at its core is a content organization. It produces content for consumption by the people watching. This content, the games, is the food other content companies live off of. ESPN, NBC, ABC and CBS have huge contractual relationships with the NFL. Do they get some kind of discount on the contracts they have signed in good faith because the NFL did not use the billions of dollars given to them to insure that games were officiating properly? Of course they don’t. This trickles down to you and me. Any rebates on your DirecTV bill? How about a free hotdog at the stadium because the refs controlling the game don’t know what off-setting penalties are? No? You’re kidding.
The reason that the NFL has vastly surpassed all other sports in America is because they rarely shoot themselves in the foot and provide high entertainment content with integrity. With the negotiations last year that shortened pre-season and the mess with the refs this year, that trend may be in danger of starting to reverse itself.
Don’t Present Yourself as Divided
Before this lockout officials were seen as another aspect woven seamlessly into the fabric of the game. We didn’t think of them as a separate entity. The very replay-heavy nature of watching football, especially on TV, made the roles of officials as much a part of the game as the 50 yard line and the field goal uprights. This was good for the game; you could question good calls or bad calls but never the integrity of those making the calls. The anonymity of the officials to the fans gave the games a sense of fairness. Very passionate and knowledgeable football fans might know a few refs by name, but everyone even people who have no interest in football at all knew about the replacement refs.
Don’t Let Game Outcomes Dictate Your Position at the Bargaining Table.
The end of the Seahawks/Packers game, or the ‘immaculate touchception’ as it is being call, had no business being the catalyst for a return to talks between the two parties. By not settling the dispute well before the season the NFL painted itself into a corner and was forced to return to the table in a sustainably weaker position.
Did anyone at the NFL’s corporate office really think that heading into the season would weaken the position of officials? That is a huge gamble. The NFL needs quality officials more than any of the officials need a job. Remember, most of these guys are lawyers or judges or CEOs in their regular jobs. Putting food on the table is not going to be a problem so waiting them out on negotiations is foolish to say the least.
One of the major sticking points with the NFL was the creation of a pension program because they feared it would create a dangerous precedent when dealing with future contract of part time employees. Well, what kind of precedent was set with this debacle? When you let a situation control you and not have control over a situation you force yourself into a weak position that runs the risk of making you look bad. That is exactly what the NFL did with this lockout.