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The Citizen

OPINION: The national league of strikes and lawsuits

By Neil Gundavda

When Golden Tate and M.D. Jennings “simultaneously” caught Seattle rookie Russell Wilson’s hail-mary pass on Monday Night Football a couple of weeks ago, the reaction was uproarious. Fans called for the heads of replacement officials. The sportscasters at ESPN, America’s (least) favorite sports-entertainment media monopoly, were flabbergasted.

Steve Young—the consummate erudite with a brief and uneventful stint in the NFL—showed off his skills of complex economic analysis, labeling consumer demand for the NFL as “inelastic.” Fans would never give up watching the game despite diminishing quality. Any good student in API 101 would have no problem critiquing Mr. Young’s model, but his main point raises a rather interesting question: how bad would the NFL have to get before fans stopped watching?

After phantom timeouts, extra replay challenges, inordinate reviews of plays, several head injuries and sheer lawlessness during games, we may not be able to answer that question. At least for now.

In June, long-time Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King wrote that the 93rd season of the NFL would represent “a league at the crossroads,” with the seemingly untouchable league tainted by internal strife and external criticism. A player lockout in 2011 resulted from the desire of 32 NFL owners to claim a larger share of the roughly $9 billion dollar revenue pie, in which players previously earned a paltry 60 percent.  Players earn a lesser amount of that percentage now, but they were able to secure several other concessions, including healthcare packages for retired players.

This summer, it was the referees’ turn to hear the clank of the budget-slashing axe. At the crux of the issue was the NFL’s desire to change referees’ defined retirement plan to a 401(k), echoing a pattern all over corporate America. Most Americans do not have a defined-benefit pension, but now have their savings entrusted in the fail-proof stock market. Disgruntlement was quite understandable.

Why did the quality of the game get so bad over the last few weeks? NFL referees supervise officials in several college football conferences, and are thus not allowed to work in NFL games.  Other conferences joined forces behind their referee colleagues, and barred their officials from serving as replacements. The NFL had to draw replacements out of high schools, Division III schools, and yes, out of the Lingerie Football league.

Yet, it was Golden Tate’s catch that served as a catalyst for the NFL and the NFL Referees Association to come to a decision. Referees were able to keep the current defined-benefit pension plan until the 2016 season. New officials get the infamous 401(k). Referees will see an increase in pay, from an average of $149,000 per year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, and to $205,000 by 2019.

It was, to a certain degree, among the most successful strikes in American history. The lockout had the simultaneous effects of granting the referees higher income and demonstrating their usefulness to the league. In a country where confrontation with unions always seems to be rewarded (Ronald Reagan and Scott Walker among the many examples), most Americans called for the NFL itself to return to the negotiating table.  Ed Hochuli, the most well-known official in the sport and certainly the most ripped, was met with unprecedented adulation at the Jaguars-Bengals game on Sept. 31. Fans cheered for him and his crew, and lined up to take pictures with him before the game.

While this crisis was averted, the fraying in the NFL edifice cannot pass unnoticed. This was not the first—nor will it be the last—attempt to put revenue above quality. The league has deeper problems to worry about. About 80 pending lawsuits against the NFL were consolidated into one suit that represents close to 3,000 former players and family members. They claim that the league did not do enough to disclose the risks of head trauma and concussions received during games.  Several high-profile suicides, including that of former linebacker Junior Seau in May, brought the issue to national prominence.  The plaintiffs rightfully wish to make the NFL responsible for the medial treatment of veteran players.

The owners and the league must do more for veteran players, especially the bevy of those with chronic depression and sleeping disorders. Players continue to drop dead at alarming rates. However, as the various lockouts over the last two years demonstrate, it has always been all about the money in the National Football League.

It is up to fans to make it right.