Tuesday night, as the NFL and its locked-out refs were progressing to the "Screw it, let's start leaking to Mort" phase of negotiations, an unnamed NFL owner gave the whole game away to the Wall Street Journal:
According to one owner who has been briefed by league officials on the issue, the disagreement with the referees is more ideological than it is financial.
And that's it. That was the stupid, preening essence of a stupid, preening work stoppage, which more or less came to an end with last night's tentative agreement. Under the terms of the deal, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will temporarily lift the lockout so the regular officials can work tonight's Cleveland-Baltimore game; if the union ratifies the agreement in a vote on Friday or Saturday, the refs will be back en masse on Sunday.
Goodell and his owners may have lost the PR battle on Monday when their sport turned into the last 10 minutes of Horse Feathers, but they won the ideological fight our anonymous owner alluded to above. It was nominally about retirement benefits, but in fact it was a struggle over what it means to be a worker or an employer under our dyspeptic yet triumphal contemporary brand of capitalism.
The NFL locked out its referees in the name of taking away their pensions. It was not that the pensions were a threat to the long-term fiscal survival of the league—again and again, we were reminded that the sums involved were pocket change in a growing, multibillion-dollar enterprise. It was that the pensions existed at all. The mere existence of a defined-benefit retirement plan offended an ownership class that had looked around and seen that every other business owner in America had already broken that particular contract. The referees' old deal was deemed insufficiently hard-edged or market-driven. That was the most vulgar thing about the lockout. It was a matter of ideological purity. It was … aesthetic.
Two weeks ago, Goodell whined to the Huffington Post's Dave Jamieson that he didn't have a pension; why should the refs?
"From the owners' standpoint, right now they're funding a pension program that is a defined benefit program," said Goodell, who was in Washington on Wednesday attending a luncheon hosted by Politico's Playbook. "About ten percent of the country has that. Yours truly doesn't have that. It's something that doesn't really exist anymore and that I think is going away steadily."
"What we agreed to do and offer as ownership," he added, "is that they would have a defined contribution plan, in the form of 401(k), so they'll still have a pension plan but the risk, like [for] most of us, would be on individuals."
If it's bad enough for the rest of us, in other words, it should be bad enough for them, too. And on that count, the only one that really mattered to the league, the NFL won. The refs will keep their pensions, but beginning in 2017, the defined-benefit plan will be frozen, and new hires will get thrown into 401(k)s.
The pension deal is a concession mainly of principle for the current refs, a minor one on its face that will surely have all the usual nutless cherubim playing all the usual harp music for Goodell's assiduously fair-minded statesmanship. But these losses matter; they move the timberline back and normalize whatever new privation has been introduced into working life, which is why Dumbass Pericles and his ilk pick the fights in the first place.
This was Goodell's fight, too. Apologists for the commissioner, like ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio, argue that the commissioner was simply "doing what the NFL owners want him to do." (Florio went so deep into the tank for Goodell on Wednesday that I don't think he'll surface until the playoffs.) But note, when the Wall Street Journal brings up the ideological stakes, who was doing the briefing and who was getting debriefed. The political line originated with the league office.
How does ripping up the pension program identifiably serve the league's practical interests, anyway? One of the selling points of 401(k) plans is that they're better suited to a dynamic economy in which workers frequently change jobs. But the league doesn't want refs ducking in and out. They're essentially lifers.
Goodell talks incessantly about protecting "the shield." He means the league's heraldic corporate logo—its brand—not any useful sort of shield. His whole tenure has been a prolonged and infinitely smarmy exercise in shifting risk and liability off the league and onto the help. He changes the rules midseason to put the onus for player health onto the players themselves. He wages an "ideological" battle to expose the refs to the whims of the market. "It's ironic that you, the NFL, is what's screwing this brand up right now," ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer intoned in the weird aftermath of Monday night's game, when he and Steve Young and Stuart Scott all started talking like Ralph Nader. Dilfer's right, and not just about the quality of play. The refs, with their pensions and their moonlighting, are vestiges of an older NFL. The lockout wasn't just a war on them; it was part of the NFL's ongoing battle with its former self.