Remember how much you resented when one of the popular kids in high school would see something big going on without him, and immediately feel the need to wedge their way into the action? President Obama’s remarks on the NFL referee labor dispute after Monday night’s game between the Packers and Seahawks has about the same tenor. Does Obama, a pencil-necked, geeky looking guy who you know would never have even made a high school football team, believe, just because he happens to be the US president, that he gets to be football’s biggest fan, leveraging his political weight so people will listen when he dishes up football opinions? Yeah, I hated popular kids doing stuff like that in high school (and I admit to having done so myself a few times, but I learned). And I hate politicians or actors or anyone sticking their nose into a controversy just because of who they are. For crying out loud Mr. President, don’t you have better things to do than worry about the officiating in the NFL? Let the little people have their controversy. It’s part of what makes following the game fun. And don’t vulgarize the presidency by believing it incumbent on you to offer your presidential opinions on every little thing in which the people are interested. Nobody except you much cares about your March Madness brackets, and the republic will survive or fail regardless of your opinions on NFL officiating. A presidential opinion in a controversy like this lands like a dud bomb in the middle of the floor. Everyone pays attention to it for a few minutes to see if it might explode, and then ignores it to carry on with their conversation.
Mitt Romney also weighed in on the controversy, but he’s not the President. One of the few advantages to being the challenger is that you really can be (or try to be) something of a regular guy. You aren’t charged with protecting the integrity and decorum of the office.
The President’s remarks seemed, like the good Democrat he is, to support the referee union’s position in the lock-out, saying he hoped “we get our referees back” as if these referees were such an integral part of the game that only they could do the officiating, and it was the league’s boorishness standing between us and our right to properly officiated football. Weighing in on the controversy is alone bad enough. Picking sides in the labor dispute is utter foolishness.
Did you know that NFL referees make $150,000 a year? And that the controversy with the league is over their pensions? The league wants to move them all to 401(k)’s, like all the rest of corporate America has done with its employees, and has offered to grandfather in existing pension holders, having the new system affect only the new hires. The referees have so far refused to go along with it. They want full pensions for a part-time job that pays them $150,000 a year. It’s not clear how many are employed by GM and Chrysler in their regular jobs.
(For more details on the referee pay and benefits package, see this Wall Street Journal article).
Meanwhile, the ratings for ESPN’s post-game Sportscenter show on Monday night were through the roof—higher than ever they have been. The referees may think the bad call on the field Monday night strengthened their hand, with the high ESPN ratings proof positive of the fact. They would be mistaken. The NFL is in the entertainment industry. The referee union should be mindful of the old saw that there is no such thing as bad publicity. A few more officiating controversies like Monday night’s, and the NFL will be dragging ESPN into a conference room to renegotiate its contracts, while the owners are laughing all the way to the bank. Controversy sells advertising like nothing else. And the legitimacy and integrity of a sport matters less than its fans often appreciate when it comes to the cash register, otherwise explain the fake wrestling league, the WWF.
The referees are set up for failure when they return. Right now, the regular referees are like an injured starting quarterback on a bad team. Everyone expects the team’s fortunes will turn around once he finally returns, but more often, when the starter returns it only serves to conclusively reveal the team’s inherent weakness. The guy on the bench is always more popular, the worse the guy on the field does, but it is an ephemeral popularity that vanishes as soon as the guy on the bench makes his first mistake. Nobody much liked the NFL referees until this year and they were no longer available. Nobody will much like them when they return.
At the moment, as Monday night made excruciatingly clear, the replacement referees aren’t up to speed on properly officiating an NFL game. But with each week, they’ll get a bit better. And bad officiating in the NFL is what my daughter would call a “first-world” problem. It is not critical for much of anything. So the Packers got robbed. People will still get fed, clothed and sheltered. It wasn’t so long ago, a different President in a different time was willing to break an illegal strike of air traffic controllers by hiring replacements. And you know what? He succeeded, and without losing a single airplane. The referee union might want to play its hand very carefully.