Why Fans Should Care About The NFL’s Lockout Of Officials

With the National Football League season just a couple weeks away, the league’s officials still haven’t returned to work. Fans have undoubtedly noticed the low-quality officiating that has filled the preseason, but they haven’t noticed the plight of the every day officials who have been locked out by a league that wants to strong-arm them back into work before the season begins.

ESPN’s Jeff MacGregor took fans to task in a tremendous column yesterday. You should read the entire piece, but I wanted to highlight MacGregor’s main point here:

But where’s the pushback? Where’s the solidarity? When did we stop calling replacement workers scabs?…And where, Mr. and Mrs. America, are you? Maybe we could get your attention if commissioner Goodell threatened to outsource the work to Guangzhou or Matamoros or Bangalore. […]

You know that your leisure to watch an NFL game on Sunday was argued and bargained and fought for by unions, right? That the wages you spent on that game-day flatscreen were argued and bargained and fought for by unions, right? That your standing as a member of the American middle class was argued and bargained and fought for by 200 years of collective effort and sacrifice and blood on the part of folks just like you, right?

And then comes MacGregor’s pitch-perfect walk-off:

Next kickoff, maybe think of it this way: That referee, that back judge, that stranger down there on the field running as hard as he can to keep up with the millionaires but falling farther behind with every step? Maybe that’s us.

I’d go a step farther than MacGregor — it’s not just disheartening that fans don’t care about the officials, but also that fans rarely, if ever, take an interest in sports’ labor fights in general. Sports are, for better or worse, one of the only industries now where such fights are front-page news, and where the existence and outcome of those fights both matters to and affects the average American in a way he or she notices and cares about. And yet, we still forget to care, even as we sit at home watching games on weeknights because of the eight-hour workday or on weekends because of the 40-hour work week that unions made possible.

Dismissing labor fights in sports as disputes between millionaires and billionaires misses the point that those fights, fundamentally, are no different than any other labor dispute: these are workers, albeit highly paid ones, fighting for their rights against a corporate class of owners that wants to take them away. These fights matter, not just for the athlete or official, but for the fan who will return to a business on Monday that, at some point, will come asking for extra hours without overtime pay, a bigger contribution to a health care package, or the elimination of a pension or retirement program. It should matter to the worker who will go to work next week at a factory that doesn’t care about safety, doesn’t allow a lunch break, that pays its executive an exorbitant salary while denying yearly raises to its employees.

These fights, whether they involve well-paid football players, part-time referees, or workers at Con Ed or Caterpillar, are our fights. They are fights that are still necessary today, in an America where stagnant wages created the “worst decade in modern history” for the middle class even as corporate profits soared through the roof. These are the fights that built our middle class, that made the American Dream something more than a faraway myth. They matter because when one group of workers wins a labor fight, it is good for all workers.

In America right now, workers are losing far too many of these battles. The biggest loss, though, is that too many people who have a stake in the outcome don’t even notice that the fight is taking place.