It was bound to happen. Call it Murphy's Law of Contrarian Journalism. Two weeks back, it was ESPN's Darren Rovell looking to blame the NHL lockout on "die-hard fans," and now Ashley Fox, his colleague at the WWL, has stepped her toe into the shitstorm that erupted Monday night. Seems we've really all got it wrong when it comes to this labor impasse between the NFL and the competent, professional referees it locked out. That's right, we're not blaming the locked-out refs enough. To wit:
Do you have a pension?
It's a simple question for which many Americans have a simple answer: not anymore. In this job market, you're lucky to get a halfway decent paycheck, never mind the details of pensions or health insurance. The buzzwords of today are furlough and salary freeze and layoffs. Pensions? Those are things of the past.
Not exactly. According to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, 44 million Americans have either earned part of a pension or are receiving pension benefits right now. That's about one in seven Americans. It's not like we're on a manhunt for Waldo here.
The National Football League has come under rampant and warranted criticism for allowing its $9 billion industry to be officiated by under-qualified referees. It has become a joke that a league supposedly so concerned about player safety and the integrity of its game has allowed 48 regular-season games to be officiated by people who have no experience doing so.
Their mistakes are well documented, and now a game has been decided on a blown call by the replacement refs. It is an embarrassment for the league and its owners.
So far, so good, although words like "allowed" makes it seem like the NFL has its hands tied and this situation came about through third-party means. Let's be clear: The NFL locked out its referees. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But this also has become an embarrassment to the 120 regular officials who have escaped this mess relatively free of blame.
They are a party to this dispute.
Well, yes, that's technically how labor disputes work, with two parties involved and all that.
They are locked out, yes, but they have held strong on their demand for the continuation of a pension plan when many of the league's full-time employees and team employees already have converted to a 401(k) retirement plan.
Again, let's be clear: We're talking about the difference of $3.3 million a year, for an industry that is slated to approach $10 billion in revenue for 2012. This, in the name of referees who want to make sure their retirement goes a little bit easier. Also, these referees aren't full-time employees. They need to work other jobs during the year to support their families. (One owner suggested to the Wall Street Journal that this fight is more "ideological" than financial. You think?)
It is unrealistic for them to expect the NFL to continue a benefit for part-time employees that it no longer provides for many full-time employees. Sure, you can say the league — and really, it is the 31 team owners and the Packers conglomeration — is being greedy, but so, too, are the referees.
$3.3 million a year out of $10 billion.
They already average a $150,000 annual salary for their officiating jobs while having other careers. Being an NFL ref is not a bad gig. The league has offered to fly them to and from games in first class. It has offered reasonable pay increases.
$3.3 million a year out of $10 billion.
There are other things the officials reportedly want. The league wants to create a bench of three additional crews — 21 additional officials — who could replace officials who under-perform. The officials naturally don't want that.
If the first 48 games of the regular season have proven anything, it's that more officials aren't the answer to anything. It's having better officials, like the ones who are locked out.
But the major sticking point — the "blood issue," as ESPN.com NFL business columnist Andrew Brandt put it — is the pension. The officials need to do what so many other employees of the league and its 32 teams have done, and let this one go.
Because why exactly?
The game is suffering.
BUT THE NFL IS THE ONE WHO DID THIS.
Bad publicity is one thing. But after three full weeks of this nonsense, the game has changed. It has become more chippy. Players are pushing the rules. They are frustrated. Coaches are frustrated. The replacement officials get little respect, and for good reason. The replacements don't seem well-versed in the rulebook. They've been hesitant to make calls and appear too easily influenced.
Yes, these are all facts, and the NFL could change all of this with one phone call. It chooses not to.
Each week, the frustration has escalated, and it is only going to get worse. Now, there has been an embarrassment on national television that cost the Packers a game. What's next? A massive brawl between opposing teams? Punches thrown? Mass ejections? It's bad enough that New England coach Bill Belichick grabbed at an official at the end of the Patriots' loss at Baltimore on Sunday, and that Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan went after another in a hallway after the Redskins' loss to Cincinnati. That could look tame by the time this mess is resolved.
The only way this gets worse, short of an all-out Last Boy Scout-esque reenactment, is that someone physically slugs a replacement official in the face. (Actually, the more I think about it, that may be more likely than we think.)
The league has taken a huge public relations hit, but fans keep filling stadiums and TV ratings continue to grow. The NFL is a machine that will not back down because the data available proves it doesn't have to. Fans will flip on their televisions on Thursday night and watch the NFL's network presentation of the Ravens-Browns game, which — if the past three weeks are any indication — should take about four hours to complete with outrageous calls and a disrupted flow.
That's something that each individual fan is going to have to reconcile. They've paid good money to see these games and it's certainly not our fault this is happening. (Or is it?!?) To boycott or not? That's up to each of us to consider on our own terms.
The NFL and the owners aren't going to budge on this.
They have absorbed the lion's share of the blame on this one, and deservedly so. But the regular officials need to be held accountable, too. They need to accept responsibility for their role in this debacle. They can come back, if they can find a reasonable middle ground.
The officials are locked out. They can't "come back," as she puts it, short of signaling some sort of complete surrender to the NFL, and that would be against the point of having a union in the first place.
Do you have a pension? I don't know many people who still do.
That's it. That's the kicker. That's what Ashley Fox has now based her entire scolding of the referees on, that she personally doesn't "know many people" with a pension and therefore the referees can go screw themselves. Also, besides the one in seven Americans currently earning or living off a pension, the Department of Labor estimates that 30 percent of Americans who have access to some sort of employer-offered retirement plan, such as a 401(k), don't take advantage of the service. But if Ashley Fox truly doesn't know many folks with a pension, maybe she needs to know more people.