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The NFL Referee Lockout: One Very Bad Call

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In case you missed it—and that seems unlikely—Monday night we saw the beginning of the end of a labor dispute, and it only cost about $500 million.

The dispute in question is what has been an unfair fight between the National Football League owners and 121 referees who were locked out before the season began. Replacement refs were hired and fans have been complaining about poor officiating for weeks.

Monday evening, those replacements blew an end of the game call, giving the underdog Seahawks a victory on the very last play. You can check out the video here, and you can get some good context from the excellent L.A. Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik here.

The story has led people down many paths. There’s the sex angle, since at least some of the replacement refs came out of something called the Lingerie Football League, in which women attired in bras and panties play football.

There’s the gambling angle, since the play not only changed the outcome of the game, it also changed the outcome for the purpose of betting lines, and thus the bad call turned gambling winners into losers. The biggest winners on this score were undoubtedly sports books, since most people bet on the Packers to win by four points or more.

For the more serious-minded, there are the actual issues, which relate to pensions and, perhaps ironically, a desire by the NFL to add alternate referees so they can more easily suspend or fire those referees who fall short of expected quality officiating.

Others have looked at the recent trend in labor away from strikes—which are down dramatically in the past two or three decades—and toward employer lockouts, which are up significantly, at least as a percentage of overall work stoppages. At the moment, it seems most of these lockouts occur in sports, as we’ve seen NFL players and referees, National Basketball Association players and National Hockey League players locked out in the past 12 months.

One assumes victory is near for the referees at this point, though I’m betting football commissioner Roger Goodell, like male suitors the world over, will wait a decent interval before calling, so as not to appear desperate. Over-under, should we be inclined toward gambling, is that it settles next week, and we get the regular officials back in Week Six of the season.

Ultimately, it’s a good reminder of why labor wins. Not because we’re right, or because we convince people we’re right (not the same thing), but because we make some people’s lives miserable enough that they decide they’d better compromise a bit to get us to stop. Alas, it’s hard for strikes to do that these days. The referees were lucky that events intervened to create such miseries. The rest of the labor movement has to get a bit more creative.

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