NFL refs, owners guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct

The NFL, the most profitable sports league in the history of our country and one of the few recession-proof businesses of any kind in this economy, has stained the start of its season fighting its referees over an estimated $4 million. The whole thing is like watching Bill Gates make a scene in a furniture store, knocking stuff over and punching the sales person because nobody will honor his coupon for a couch.

Why make this particular mess? How can this be worth it to the NFL given all the angry noise that has engulfed the season’s first month and given how much the league cares about the image of its brand? Four million dollars? Really? That’s a fifth of what commissioner Roger Goodell makes annually.

Some perspective: That $4 million is about what it cost last year for one 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl commercial inventory, in a sluggish economy, sold out before Thanksgiving. That means there is an actual waiting list of sponsors lined up for months to pay that $4million for 30 seconds of football’s time. And this very noisy fight with the referees, which has consumed too much of the first month’s conversation in a league that punishes its most famous employees with unprecedented penalties if they dare stain the shield, is over a mere 1/2,250 of the NFL’s annual $9 billion revenue.

A different perspective: Back when he owned the Dolphins, Wayne Huizenga, one of the wealthiest men in the world, was once asked the lowest denomination of money he would stop to bend down to pick up if he saw it on the street. A penny, he said.

These owners didn’t get to be owners by ignoring the pennies. Winning fights over money is who they are, and how they got where they are. Negotiating is, in fact, a fun and competitive game as they lord over all those colliding employees who have to give their limbs and health to the other kind being played. Asking the owners to cave on this is like asking Ray Lewis to take a knee and allow himself to be trampled when that football is snapped.

These guys aren’t called sportsmen; they’re called businessmen. They, in job title, own the sportsmen. They aren’t going to become different people around this hobby than they are in the businesses that allow them to afford this hobby, and they aren’t going to genuflect before the refs or the customers, no matter how noisy this gets. A botched call that decides a game will sway them soon? Maybe, if one of those is indeed coming. Or maybe they’ll just point out that the real refs botched games, too, as well as an overtime coin flip.

Greed? That’s the pejorative an angry fan might spew. But the owners would counter that it is just business. “Greed” and “business” are separated only by which side of the transaction you reside. The local grocery store doesn’t endure the expense of providing you free air conditioning as altruism for its beloved customer. It provides free air conditioning because, if it doesn’t, the beloved customer might instead spend at the grocery store that does. The thing that is beloved here is the dollars, not the customers, and the only leverage the customer has is withholding them. But we don’t. Football has never been more popular.

Up in their skyboxes, NFL owners have turned off your air conditioning down below. Where are you going to go? Here’s what you are going to do: Complain and sweat. Here’s what you aren’t going to do: Leave. And that’s why the refs have no real leverage. All they can do is hope that the replacement refs keep getting worse as the owners bank on them getting better.

So imagine this as the world’s most extravagant country club. These wealthy elites don’t mind the exorbitant membership fees or the overpriced cigars. It is part of why they joined, the exclusivity that others can’t afford. But they’ll bare those teeth even in this exclusive club if they see the help rummaging through their lockers trying to steal a single dollar out of their wallet.

The fan is always inclined to side with the little guy in squabbles like this, but there are some things you should know. The real refs make an average of $150,000 a year, for a part-time job that comes with a pension and requires little more than 16 to 20 Sundays. There is film work and rule review they must do during the week, and more labor than just Sundays, but 121 refs split $18 million for their part-time efforts last year. They fly first class to games, all expenses paid, get half the year off, and most of them have lucrative second jobs as business owners or senior management. Just like the owners, this is all a hobby for them, too, something to do on weekends.

The ref isn’t the little guy in this fight. You are, in an America where pensions are being cut savagely or disappearing altogether and the median household income was $50,054. In other words, the average NFL ref, while clamoring for more, makes in his second job — a part-time job — three times as much as the average American couple working full time and watching this mess unfold in their living room at home because they can’t afford game tickets.

In general, you aren’t paid according to what you deserve. You are paid according to how replaceable you are or aren’t. So, to the owners, this becomes about the principal and the principle. They don’t want to give as much of a raise as the refs want, or the kind of pension, and they want to be able to replace refs who perform poorly like they can replace employees in any of their other workplaces in the real world. The refs want their part-time, $150,000 jobs to come with a pension instead of a 401k, their six months off and no threat of being replaced.

But it looks like they have to eat it. And we, the fans, have to eat it, too.

Because there is no restaurant in America quite like this one, and the owners know it doesn’t much matter who is bringing out our food.

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