Could NFL Players End The Referees Lockout?

There are conflicting reports about whether a deal to end the National Football League’s lockout of its professional referees is in place. ESPN reported that a deal was “at hand” an hour after reporting that the two sides weren’t close, while has reported that the officials union and league have reached minor agreements but are still stuck on the biggest point of contention: the referees’ pension benefits.

Regardless, I wanted to address one thing that keeps coming up when the lockout is discussed: whether the NFL players, who are also unionized, could end the lockout by showing solidarity through a walkout or other means. The short answer to that will disappoint many of you, because it is almost undoubtedly, “No.”

The NFL Players Association stood with the officials from the start, promising to consider all options and refusing to take a strike or walkout off the table. After the egregious mistake at the end of the Monday Night Football game this week, Green Bay Packers offensive lineman TJ Lang said players debated walking off the field or taking a knee on every play this week to show how disgruntled they are with the replacement officials.

The reality is, though, even in the absence of a deal, none of that is likely to happen. The “take a knee on every play” strategy would certainly cause a public relations nightmare for the league, but it would be nearly impossible to organize league-wide. Plus, with paying fans in the seats and at home, there’s a better-than-solid chance that it would backfire, making the players villains when they are currently on the right side of this debacle.

The other option, a general walkout by the entire NFLPA, is even less likely. The collective bargaining agreement players and owners reached last year contains a no strike clause that prevents players from walking off the job unless they feel their jobs or their union is at stake. Walking out, then, would require making the legal argument that use of scab officials is negligent and creates an overly hazardous work environment, which would allow the players to void the entire CBA. That would almost certainly lead to protracted and costly legal battle that I suspect the union doesn’t want. And while it would certainly show solidarity, it too would turn at least some fans against the players and officials at a time when the NFLRA has all the leverage in this fight.

Outside the players, others are taking action too. The president of the New Jersey state senate introduced legislation yesterday that would ban professional sporting events played in the state from using replacement labor, a noble cause but one that isn’t likely to go anywhere (the NFL quickly dismissed it as a stunt).

It’s good that people are taking notice (even if it’s often for the wrong reasons), and it’s good that players like Lang are discussing ways to throw their muscle around to help the officials. But the players have long argued that there isn’t much they can do — that this is a mess created by the league and, as such, will have to be solved by the league — and I tend to agree with them. It would be great, as someone who is sympathetic to the NFLRA’s cause, to see the players walk off the field in solidarity Thursday in Baltimore and Sunday across the country. The reality, though, is that there just isn’t much the players can do.