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Action Replay: Own Goal

The NFL is the National Football League, but the nation is the United States and the football is of the American kind, known as gridiron, with helmets and shoulder-pads. We have commented previously on how dangerous the game can be for the players and how the owners wanted to extend the playing season and reduce wages (Action Replay, March 2011). Now, though, the focus of industrial action has shifted to the referees.

The league wanted to cut referees’ wages and introduce an inferior pension and retirement plan. They relied on the fact that refereeing is a part-time job with a number of perks and that there would be plenty of refs who have worked lower down the sport’s ladder and would be only too pleased to step into the shoes of their professional colleagues. The refs were seen as an unimportant part of the whole package. As a league vice-president said, ‘You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch someone officiate at a game.’ So in June the 121 official refs were locked out and replaced by others who were way down the pecking order in terms of training and experience.

But from the bosses’ point of view things did not go as they hoped. It turned out that the less well-qualified refs were, would you believe, less able to make correct decisions in top games subject to massive TV coverage and intense scrutiny by pundits and fans. After the number of mistakes became embarrassing, and some teams missed play-offs owing to the fiasco, in October the league had to climb down and reinstate the proper refs on their original contracts.

The NFL hierarchy had tried to save what was, in the context of the sport as a whole, relatively small amounts of money only to find that the multi-billion-dollar product was damaged, and they were forced to backtrack. In other words, the industry needed a competent workforce, even in the most unglamorous of its jobs. As elsewhere, it’s the workers who produce the wealth and provide the services.