Lockout Epidemic: Why Work Stoppages in Professional Sports Are Bad for More Than Just Sports Fans

October 2, 2012

Baseball, Football, Hockey, NBA, NFL

“Oh hey the real referees are back” said every American football fan at the same time, just before screaming at their televisions about a missed holding call. For about eighteen minutes, between 11:52 PM on September 24 2012 and 12:10 AM on September 25 2012, so many Americans agreed so strongly about the same thing that a seemingly unsolvable labor dispute was fixed in less than 3 business days.

This remarkable turnaround was the direct result of M.D.-Jennings-Golden-Tate- Simultaneous-Catch-Gate (or MDJGTSC-Gate), and the horrific call that cost the Green Bay Packers a victory in the eyes of the majority of fans and commentators. Lets get one thing clear: the return of the true-blue, love to hate ’em NFL officials was absolutely the right outcome. However, the genesis of this outcome where a problem presents itself.

No not you guys.

In the past two years, the NFL has seen two separate work stoppages, one for players and one for referees, the NBA has seen one, and the NHL has just recently entered one (remarkably, Major League Baseball, once the laughing stock of player/owner relations in professional sports, has avoided work stoppages all together during the past decade). Out of all of these lockouts (none of which have carried the label player/employee organized “strikes”), the NFL referee stoppage is absolutely the most unique.

The majority of work stoppages in sports are inherently preposterous. Essentially, root issue of the most recent NFL, NBA, and NHL player lockouts has been the inability of two groups of millionaires to find a way to divide billions of dollars. There were underlying issues in each case that made them unique, but ridiculous, Scrooge McDuck amounts of money are the common link in each lockout.

Meeting of the NFL Board of Directors, artist’s rendering

When millionaires in a union feel that they’re being slighted by their employers financially (or, conversely, when millionaires operating multi million dollar sports franchises feel that they’re being fleeced by their employees financially), the solution is just to walk away for a while. And that solution works for a simple reason- millionaires can afford to not work for a year at a time. Take, for example, the current NHL lockout. Increasingly, the prospects of a timely beginning to the NHL season are looking bleak. Some players may care about getting back on the ice- especially those who aren’t the beneficiaries of nine figure, long term contracts- but the owners have nothing to lose. If there’s no NHL season, the league will still retain the entirety of its $200 million deal with NBC and NBC Sports. $200 million dollars, with virtually no hockey-related expenses. That is a massive windfall for the NHL and its owners, and it would only be the tip of the iceberg (the league will still sell merchandise, and owners will still operate arenas they own as concert and event venues).

On the other hand, there was the NFL referees lockout. NFL officiating crews were locked out over a much smaller amount of money. The explicit financial cost to get NFL officials back on the field is estimated at $100,000 per team. To put that in perspective, the Dallas Cowboys alone made $100,000 five thousand times over just last year. Why were the NFL owners so instant on harming the quality of their product? $3.2 million, roughly 0.3% of league revenue in 2012. In summation, the owners of NFL franchises valued a small fraction of their pocketbooks over the retirement funding for a group of employees who make significantly less than any player on the payroll.

There are several problems created by these lockouts. First and foremost, player lockouts trivialize the importance of union activity in the mainstream workforce. Labor negotiations in the world of sport are the most intensely covered and scrutinized forms of labor negotiations in the majority of media circles. But they have no real financial effect on anyone looking at them from the outside. Are they disheartening? Sure, but for the most part, nobody gets hurt. Effectively, sports have turned labor negotiations into an inconvenience, something that happens frequently but has no more importance to anyone’s life then the outcome of two teams with losing records playing on the last day of the season. Just this week, Wal-Mart turned a heavily armed riot squad against striking workers at a factory in Chicago, an action which received zero coverage anywhere outside of the blog-o-sphere and Twitter. There are several reasons why, not the least of which is a complete apathy toward the plight of low and middle class workers in the US, but the ludicrous nature of labor negotiations between players unions and owners and the coverage those negotiations receive are undoubtedly¬† contributing factors.

Really, this happened. Photo via @daneyvilla on Twitter.

Locking out NFL referees caused a particularly troublesome problem. As I said before, the NFLRA was asking for pension funding from the league to replace an increasingly unreliable 401k system (it is worth nothing that NFL referees are in the top 10% of income earners in the US, but still make a fraction of the money that players take in each year). The league flat out refused, and had no interest in discussing the matter. At least they didn’t, until MDJGTSC-Gate, when even hardline, anti-union Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker demanded the return of Union referees. Within days, the league sat down with the NFLRA and got a deal done, conceding to the referee’s demands. But at no point were owners asked to expound upon their opposition to offering pension funds to the referees. The league made a deal because the replacements that they had hired were hurting the image and quality of professional football. The owners only buckled because fans were enraged at the replacements, not at the greed and selfishness being displayed by the owners. A solution was made not because the owners came around, or because the NFLRA compromised, but because the alternative solution the league installed with failed miserably. Grievances of the NFLRA were addressed begrudgingly, not out of genuine compassion or desire to compromise, setting a clear president that the time for an employer to compromise is not when their employees ask for it, but rather when a work stoppage has the potential to create detrimental effect on the financial well being of the entity that has locked out its workers.

Work stoppages in sports don’t deal with the real world problems that the majority of union negotiations deal with, they deal in the insane, fantastical wonderland that only exists in the coffers of professional sports. Control of a professional sports franchise is all but a license to print money, and any association with those franchises gets you a cut of that money. Why should anyone care about a cashier asking for an extra $1 per hour, or a factory worker striking for comprehensive health care and payment of stolen overtime wages, or a corporate entity retaliating against employees attempting to unionize, when the most high profile union negations that happen in North America are essentially glorified games of Monopoly? When the NFL, NHL, and NBA trivialize labor negotiations, and the issues contained within those negotiations are eventually swept under the rug, workers everywhere pay for it.

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