Officially Defeated: On the Broader Significance of the NFL Referee Lockout
In the twenty-first century, the NFL’s product can no longer reasonably be separated from its mediated presentation via television. NFL telecasts routinely rate as the most-watched programs on US television and ‘inelastic’ demand for the NFL’s product has resulted in immense revenues from the league’s broadcasting agreements. This exposure, demand, and revenue have emboldened the NFL in every phase, including its negotiations with its employees. We saw this just last summer with the NFL’s hard-line stance against the Player’s Association and we’ve just seen it with the lockout of the NFL’s officials. It took an egregious officiating error by 3rd-rate replacements in a recent primetime game to prompt the NFL to come to a deal with the NFL Referee Association. Now, with the standing ovation for Gene Steratore’s crew at the beginning of last night’s game, collective relief over the return of the ‘real referees’ threatens to overwhelm the significance of this most visible struggle between management and labor.
When the lockout began, Dave Zirin observed that the NFL was pursuing this tactic simply because it could. He then laid out the material case for the NFL’s stance, contextualizing the league’s grotesque profits and extremely aggressive approach to labor relations within broader trends in American corporate culture. Yet Zirin’s analysis under-emphasizes the ideological and discursive dimensions of this situation. I contend that this lockout encapsulates the manner in which the material and ideological conditions of struggle between labor and capital have been reconfigured during thirty-plus years of neoliberal discourse and policy. The fetishization of the ‘free’ market and individual autonomy, the privileging of private interests over the public, and an increasing hostility towards organized labor have taken hold in the United States. We now find ourselves in a moment at which wealth is being funneled upwards as public debt balloons and poverty and unemployment continue to increase. Despite all this, we continue to see a persistent skepticism about organized labor and government intervention within the general public. In this context, the NFL intuitively understood that it could lock out its officials with impunity because public sentiment was inherently opposed to these workers.
This was widely apparent during the referee lockout. One seldom saw the non-union referees referred to as ‘scabs’; rather, media commentators called them ‘replacement officials’. Similarly, game analysts and commentators were often reluctant to criticize the ‘replacement’ officials (though there have been suggestions that some were duped). My own survey of user comments on articles concerning the substitute officials on Profootballtalk.com suggested that many readers were unsympathetic to the NFLRA with numerous hostile comments posted. Perhaps most curiously, while fans and commentators critiqued the performance of these officials and lamented the diminished quality of games – see the meme pictured above – few seemed to connect this to the NFL’s decision to lock out its professional referees after the NFLRA refused to accept the NFL’s take-it-or-leave-it offer during negotiations before the season. Fewer still made the obvious connections between this event and other recent labor disputes.
Here we have a massively profitable billion-dollar sports league that was willing to compromise the quality of its product, the safety of its players, and its own reputation in order to gain some meager savings – as low as $62,000 annually per team, according to some reports. Per Peter King, the primary sticking point in negotiations was apparently the retirement plan; the NFL sought to shift all referees from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution, market-based plan. While the referees initially balked at this, early reports concerning Wednesday’s deal indicate that this measure is set to go through in 2016. Despite their efforts to hold out, and their apparent leverage after Monday’s debacle, the refs ultimately became only the latest group of American workers to lose their pensions. A turn of events that would have been unthinkable three decades ago now barely elicits a raised eyebrow; in this case, the few criticisms of the deal have been drowned out by the cheers for the return of the real refs and the apparent salvation of the NFL season.
So, what can we take from this sequence of events? None of what has transpired here is new. These points bear repeating, however, because events such as this represent brief moments of clarity in which the material and ideological power dimensions of a given moment are exposed. It is perhaps a fitting sign of the times that, just as public consciousness of the stakes of this struggle seemed to be building, it was punted into the past through a hasty resolution. But the fact that this dispute even got to this stage is itself an indication of the extent to which the management-labor dichotomy has faded in the collective public mind. With this week’s agreement, this lockout becomes merely another disparate event in as yet unconnected cluster of struggles from the Wisconsin Uprising to the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike to the myriad private-sector labor disputes that dot our blighted economic landscape.
As with those events, it is unclear whether or not there will be any meaningful residual activity emerging out of this most visible struggle. Indeed, this is perhaps the defining quality of our time: the difficulty envisioning and articulating connections across classes, spaces, and events. As with the public-sector workers and the teachers in the preceding events, football fans could not seem to see their own diminished circumstances and prospects for the future in the referees struggle to hold the line against the league. This fading conflict now stands as yet another indication that the terrain of struggle that defined the twentieth century has yielded to something else. This new moment demands new ways of conceptualizing and articulating the dimensions of a more amorphous and atomized struggle over material goods and ideological territory.
I believe that the difficulty we’ve experienced in imagining and articulating these new ways attests to the all-encompassing tension between the nostalgic cul-de-sac of the ‘American Century’ and the pervasiveness of neoliberal ideologies. The way we never were, to borrow Stephanie Coontz’s phrase, looks better and better as the status quo continues to deteriorate. Then again, three decades of rampant individualism have limited our ability to conceive of ourselves in terms of broader social entities. The lockout should provide a stern indication that the old terrain of struggle has been reconfigured in material and ideological terms. Its lesson is surely that, if those of us who labor do not get engage in the practice of imagining new ways of community-building, organizing, and resisting, we will undoubtedly face diminished prospects in the future. Of course, its deeper lesson may be that the twentieth century is fated to be remembered as a brief golden cycle in a much darker longue durée.