Let's stipulate that the decision by the 32 NFL club owners, by their hand-picked commissioner, and by their well-paid legal advisers to lock out the unionized officials has, to put it mildly, backfired. The business-world billions and Ivy League law degrees running the most popular and profitable sports organization in American history failed to do what any smart tactician does: anticipate the worst possible outcome and adopt a strategy to avoid it.
Will last night’s debacle—let’s call it, with no malice toward the city’s women’s basketball team, the Seattle Shitstorm—be the moment history judges as the beginning of the end for the NFL? I think that’s more likely to be the day a player dies on the field, but there’s certainly a case to be made. The refereeing scandal has placed the quality, safety, watchability, and integrity of the sport under assault from its main constituents: players, coaches, broadcasters, sports books, and fans. And the NFL’s Oz-ian, Orwellian statement that “no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field” doesn’t help matters. Seattle 14, Green Bay 12 states unequivocally that the results of National Football League games cannot be trusted.* This comes as the NFL and football face assaults on legal, medical, and public-relations fronts akin to those that engulfed the tobacco and asbestos industries.
In the last 40 years, sports leagues have relied on one immutable fact: No matter how hard they get dumped, fans always slink back. Whether another week or three or six of farcical NFL games alters that calculus is anyone’s guess. Turnstiles are still spinning and televisions still glowing, but it’s hard to see how the league’s more reasonable and rational owners—New England’s Robert Kraft, Denver’s Pat Bowlen, the Rooneys in Pittsburgh, the Maras and Tisches in New York—wouldn’t be embarrassed and angry about what’s happening. The NFL today looks less like the statue of Vince Lombardi outside Lambeau Field than the one of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.
At this point, everyone agrees the scab refs are an abomination. To say that a guy who usually officiates JUCO games was in over his head calling a game-deciding play in a packed, roaring stadium is stating the obvious. But the backgrounds of the officials and other details of the incident are beside the point. Blame them for crossing a picket line, but not for screwing up. As Pablo Torre of Sports Illustrated noted before the lockout, refereeing NFL games might be a part-time job, but during the season it’s a six-day-a-week part-time job that includes study, testing, travel, games, and grading. Mastering the NFL rule book, case book, instant-replay case book, and infractions enforcement manual is a years-long endeavor. Torre added up the verbiage: “190,330 words—almost 10,000 more than the New Testament.”
Chris, with uncharacteristic lexical restraint, you called on Goodell to end the lockout. Your fellow union members took to Twitter to vent their rage. Packers guard T.J. Lang is getting the most pickup with his “Got fucked by the refs ... Thanks NFL” message. Other players begged Goodell to end the lockout. (“WOW!! Help please @nflcommish.”) Others saluted management’s hypocrisy. (“This is what the NFL has come down to & yet they tell you to respect the shield! Lol. But they'll try to fine us for everything thing we do.”) Others took the fifth. (“So much to say. So little room in the pocketbook.”)
There were also calls to arms. “This sucks!!!! I'm start a riot. Really,” Houston defensive back Danieal Manning wrote. And Packers offensive lineman Josh Sitton threatened Goodell with a league-wide walkout: “The NFL needs to get the refs back [before] we strike and they make no money!”
It seems as if the players should wield a lot of power here. Their sport is turning into a national joke, and their well-being is at risk because of officials who can’t control a game that’s on the edge of testosterone-fueled anarchy even under normal circumstances. But a strike by the NFL Players Association is legally out of the question. Article 3, Section 1 of the NFL’s collective-bargaining agreement is clear: “neither the NFLPA nor any of its members will engage in any strike, work stoppage, or other concerted action interfering with the operations of the NFL or any Club for the duration of this Agreement...”(The only exception is a threat to the existence of the union.)
So what could the players do? Earlier this month, Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School, wrote on Sports Law Blog that federal law permits workers to refuse to work under “abnormally dangerous conditions.” Boston College sports lawyer Warren Zola suggested Monday that the NFLPA could, on the same grounds, ask a court for an injunction ending the lockout and returning the union refs to the field while the two sides negotiate.
The union might have a hard time convincing the National Labor Relations Board that the game is markedly more dangerous now than it was a year ago. That might explain why it hasn’t taken legal action, but it is laying the foundation. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in an interview on Monday that “we continue to look at whether or not we’ve got legal claims against the National Football League for violations of the CBA or violations of their obligation to keep the workplace as safe as possible.” A day earlier, the union’s executive committee, consisting of players and former players, released a scathing letter, telling the owners that there is “substantial evidence that you have failed in your obligation to provide as safe a working environment as possible.” And according to the NFLPA’s George Atallah, the union is holding a call for player reps this afternoon.
Sports management has always counted on the fact that rallying unions of workers with short careers is difficult. As current Oakland (and ex-Green Bay) cornerback Brandian Ross said in a post-Shitstorm tweet: “Realize people players won't strike because we have families to provide for and [won’t] jeopardize that for anything.” But now’s the time for the players to do something.
The question is what might constitute a “concerted action” under the terms of their CBA. Could players skip practice? Could they refuse to take the field for a few minutes before the start of next weekend’s games? Could they just stand around after the scab ref blows the opening whistle? Could they turn the game into a mockery of a mockery by not trying—by taking a knee on every play, with the Tampa Bay defense ignoring the screams from their red-faced coach to pile-drive Washington’s motionless offensive line? Might that get Goodell’s attention?
McCann says that any “coordinated worker slowdown” that impacts the playing of games “would probably count as striking behavior.” Same goes for not showing up for practice. Wearing, say, armbands to show solidarity with the locked-out refs would constitute tampering with the uniform, which is also barred under the CBA. But would Goodell and the owners, credibility in tatters, have the K Balls to go after the players for a limited public act of defiance?
McCann thinks they would. “I know that sounds crazy given how terrible the officiating has been, but the league and its lawyers could argue it has an obligation to maintain the integrity of the CBA, and that violations of it be addressed,” he says. I say call the NFL’s bluff. Because the scabs aren’t going to decide they’ve had enough and quit. And coaches aren’t going to jeopardize their own contracts and refuse to send their teams on the field. What have the players got to lose? Another game?
Correction, Sept. 25, 2012: This post originally transposed the final score of the Packers-Seahawks game. (Return to the corrected sentence.)