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Yellow Flag: What the NFL Reminded Me About Strikes

Last week, NFL referees came to a tentative agreement with the league after several months of negotiations. The end to the months long strike was more than likely compelled by a particularly horrific call, one so bad the league had to issue a “Yeah, they really got that one wrong” mea culpa. Although game officiating over the first few weeks had not been good, the  last gaffe occurred on MNF the league’s crown jewel, for all of the football loving world to see.

Until that point the NFL, which generated nearly$10 billion in revenue last year, seemed okay with replacement officials. After all, people were still watching. Yet the erratic, confused and sometimes downright bad officiating culminated last Monday with that egregiously blown call and forced the league’s hand. Things were so bad that the President, who’s clearly not done anything to indicate that he is pro-union, tweeted that he wanted the regular refs back. Perhaps such presidential pressure combined with the fact that the requests union referees were making would have cost the league about$6.5 million a year to implement, helped the NFL realize that it was looking at a real public relations nightmare.

So after months with no deal and several regular season games with replacement officials, the NFL and its referees struck a deal. And everybody was happy. (That is, until that first yellow flag was thrown on a debatable pass interference call.) But since I can’t leave well enough alone and find sports incredibly instructive when thinking about life in general, I must make the following irrational inquiry:  What if the NFL players had refused to play games as an act of solidarity with the union?

Now, I understand this is a kind of an absurd question. After all, NFL players probably aren’t trying to lose game checks in a job field with no guaranteed contracts. Yet having just gone through their own lockout the year before, I would like to imagine that at the very least  NFL players thought very seriously about not taking the field. NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith hinted at the possibility in late August, citing the argument that replacement officials would create an even less safe environment for players to play. Still, though, they suited up and played, complaining on the field, in press conferences, and on Twitter.

But what if they had refused to play?

The NFL referees strike did something the CTU strike couldn’t: it made a large group of people, for whatever reason, care about the workers’ side of the argument. When people saw the negative impact the strike had on their desired product, they voiced outrage. I submit that the NFL players could have goaded and sped up that process by choosing to stand in solidarity with those at odds with the same corporate entity they had faced the year before. Further, the protest would have represented the kind of multi-lateral alliances that will be needed in an environment that is increasingly hostile to workers fighting for fairer wages and decent working condition.

Football is our national obsession. In many ways, no other sport more accurately reflects the culture: football is violent, simultaneously homoerotic and -phobic, and most importantly, militaristic down to the helmets that anonymize the soldiers/players. It works nicely with the mythos we like to pass on to young men especially about hard work, not giving up, and being strong. It could have served as an example of how to unite for the goal of a more equitable working environment; that collectively, we can resist and counteract the desires of those who are more powerful. Instead, those who are even more marginalized, in this case the “scab” replacement refs, became the temporary site on which to project our collective vitriol. Instead of addressing the source of the unrest, fans and players alike returned to the tried and true method of denigrating the replacement referees by making disparaging remarks (e.g. telling the replacements to go back to their jobs at fast food restaurants) that revealed a real abhorrence for the low and working classes.

If the NFL players had decided to stand with the referees they were so excited to welcome back this weekend, they might have taught their fans that sometimes standing with each other is worth more than a game check. Instead, the only lesson learned is that we prefer to yell at the zebra we know, and that Hochuli’s Guns is still a great fantasy team name. A missed tackle, indeed.