As the National Football League heads into its second week of play, it is still without its regular referees. They have been locked out since June in a dispute centering on their pensions.
This kind of labor war is not new for the NFL. In 2001, when the referees and the NFL clashed over salary, the league used replacements in the first game of the season before reaching an agreement, and in 1987, the NFL brought in replacements when the players walked out during a strike that lasted 24 days. Thirteen years later Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves even starred in a comedy, The Replacements, based on the 1987 strike,
What is surprising is that the league wants a new labor war now. The country is in a recession, but pro football is thriving. NFL revenues are currently $9.3 billion a year and expected to climb to between $12 and $14 billion.
The refs, for their part, are seeking benefits that they put at $16.5 million over the five years of a new contract. In a 32-team league that amounts to just $500,000 per team, less than what a typical pro player earns in a single season. ($1.9 million average NFL player salary or $770,000 median NFL player salary).
Were the NFL serious about ending the current lockout, all it would have to do is offer up the $16.5 million the refs say they need. The refs have made their $16.5 million demand so public that they have left themselves no wiggle room to ask for more.
Fans have noticed the comedic blunders of the replacement refs. In the first exhibition game of 2012, one referee even got the name of the team that won the coin toss wrong.
But the critical on-the-field issue is safety. What everyone fears is that sooner or later a game is going to get out of hand with inexperienced officials in charge.
The major college refs, out of loyalty to the NFL refs, have refused to act as fill-ins. As a result, the current NFL replacements refs come primarily from the lower levels of college football, where the size of the players and the speed of the game is very different from the pro ranks.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has all but admitted the replacement refs present a problem. "They're not going to be correct all the time, but we have systems in place to try to help," he told the media.
Goodell is, nonetheless, confident he can force concessions from the regular refs. "We did this 11 years ago. The game does not stop," he insists.
In the Wednesday-night season opener between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys, replays showed the players illegally holding as soon as they realized the referees were doing their best to avoid controversial calls. In Sunday's Green Bay Packers-San Francisco 49ers game, the referees seemed to be overcompensating for the charge that they were reluctant to blow their whistles. They called 18 penalties and drew the anger of both team's coaches.
Some player criticism of the replacement refs has been widely reported. Robbie Gould, the place kicker for the Chicago Bears, called the fill-in refs "clueless". Quarterback Sage Rosenfels of the Minnesota Viking described them as "overmatched".
But the NFL Players Association's collective bargaining agreement with the NFL limits any strike action the players can take to help the refs. Aside from complaining about the bad calls of the replacements, the players have been very restrained in their response to the lockout. They have been unwilling to label the fill-in refs "strike breakers".
The players' restraint may also reflect the fact that the regular NFL referees, most of whom hold other jobs during the week, are already getting good salaries. There are only 121 of them, and their average pay last season was $149,000.
Still, what the regular refs are asking for in their new contract is modest in light of their employer's growing wealth. If the refs have overreached, it has been in believing their nearly 1,500 years of collective NFL experience would spare them from being treated as disposable, middle-class employees.
Like thousands of teachers and municipal workers who in recent years have been forced into accepting pay and benefit cuts, the refs are finding they are more on their own than they ever imagined.
The NFL is willing to defend its bottom line at all costs, even if that means showing its worst side. Remember, until medical evidence proved them wrong, NFL officials sought to minimize how dangerous the concussions players so often experience are. The lockout of the referees follows this same penny-wise-pound-foolish pattern.
The NFL has no foreign competition. It is as close as we now come to a protected industry. If it can hold down what it pays key, mid-level employees like refs, what's in store for those fringe NFL workers who help out in the locker room and on the practice field?
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently at work on a book about the West Point football team of 1964 and its service in Vietnam.
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image: © Matt McGee