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Between the Lines: The Owners Didn't Build the NFL

The referee lockout shows what a union can do when people are watching.

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Thursday, October 04, 2012

Noam Chomsky once remarked that "sports keeps people from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about." As anyone remotely familiar with today's spectator sports landscape of multiple 24-hour ESPN channels, legalized gambling fantasy leagues and endless sports talk radio would likely acknowledge, Chomsky certainly had a point.

But sometimes sports transcend entertainment and glorified distraction to provide an astute look into the most pertinent issues of our society. That is exactly what happened with the now infamous lockout of the National Football League (NFL) referees by the league's owners and its commissioner, Roger Goodell.

In the end, the lockout was yet another case of the powerful (the league owners) thinking they could get away with taking from the less powerful (the referees, the players and the fans). How long would fans put up with a product for which they were paying full price but which was significantly diminished because of the "replacement" referees? (Replacement referees has a nice alliterative ring, but it was a double-speak misnomer from start. For as we saw, the NFL's union referees were indeed not replaceable—certainly not by those charged with the task.)

How long would players step out onto the gridiron to engage in a physically dangerous contest knowing that the game would not be ideally controlled, and would therefore be less safe?

Answer: exactly three weeks. That, despite Chomsky's astute observation about the distracting role of sports in our society, is a remarkably short amount of time for addressing and changing a business practice based on lack of proper value for skilled labor—an attitude that has persisted for decades now.

"Let's do an official review," Will Bunch writes for Philly.com. "First they (by "they" I mean Ronald Reagan) came for the air traffic controllers ... Then they came for the assembly line worker ... Then they came for the public employees in Wisconsin ... Then they came for the teachers in Chicago ... Then they came for the NFL refs—and you went bat-guano crazy." (Bunch might deserve a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for paraphrasing Martin Niemoller's famous retrospective on the Holocaust, but his point is nevertheless well taken.)

In a perfect world, perhaps people would be more upset about the treatment of public employees in Wisconsin—upset enough to jam the phone lines of radio talk shows for days on end so the issue wouldn't go away until it was resolved. Upset enough so our news networks would be forced to cover the story for fear their analysis would be deemed insignificant unless they did.

But the sports landscape, for better or worse, is more pervasive. An immense sports infrastructure has proliferated across society. Monday morning quarterbacks chat at the office water cooler. Sporting events are televised in every bar in every town across the country. It's virtually impossible to ignore the embeddedness of sports in our society. This has helped the NFL, with its billionaire owners, become the richest, most popular sports league we've ever known. But it also provides something of a stopgap when things go too far, as they certainly did with the lockout of the NFL referees.

"This nine-billion-dollar league? This unprecedented popularity? This limitless national audience? You didn't build that. Your owners didn't build that. The sponsors didn't build that," Dave Zirin, columnist for The Nation, counsels the rulers of the NFL. "It was built by the blood, sweat, and tears of those on the field of play, including the referees. It was built by fans who invest their passion and the taxpayers who have underwritten your archipelago of mega-domes in cities across thecountry... We may go back to booing [the union refs] after the first play [this Sunday], but it will be with respect: respect earned because they stood as one and beat the NFL bosses."

If we could only achieve that kind of success off the field of play as well.

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