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Botched NFL Call Sparks Wide Support for Unionized Refs & Outrage at Owners’ “Corporate Arrogance”

StorySeptember 26, 2012
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A labor dispute between the National Football League and the union representing its referees reached a fever pitch Monday night during a game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers when substitute referees failed to call pass interference before a last-second touchdown. The play ended the game in favor of the Seahawks, when many argue it should have gone the other way. The play focused attention on the NFL’s decision to use substitute referees after it locked out the regular professionals over a dispute about pension plans and compensation. We’re joined by sportswriter Dave Zirin. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a brewing labor dispute between the National Football League and the union representing its referees. The fight reached a fever pitch Monday night during a game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers when substitute referees blew a call on a last-second game-winning touchdown. Here’s the replay.

MIKE TIRICO: Final play is a Wilson loft to the end zone, which is fought for by Tate with Jennings simultaneous. Who has it? Who will they give it to? Touchdown! One guy goes up touchdown; the other said no time. Has to be looked at, because it’s a score. Still have an official down there in the pile looking.

JON GRUDEN: There’s Russell Wilson.

MIKE TIRICO: They’re fighting down at the bottom of the pile with Jennings still down there, Tate off the pile with the ball. We must have a definitive call. There was one touchdown signal.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s the touchdown many critics have dubbed a “Fail Mary.” It’s zeroed in attention on the NFL’s decision to use substitute referees after it locked out the regular professionals over a dispute about pension plans and compensation.

AMY GOODMAN: Packers guard T.J. Lang went on Twitter Monday to describe the call, using profanity. He later tweeted the NFL should, quote, “Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs.”

Monday night’s controversy has reached the highest level of government. President Obama tweeted Tuesday, quote, ”NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs’ lockout is settled soon.” Meanwhile, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, known for his attacks on organized labor, took the side of the unionized referees, tweeting, quote, “After catching a few hours of sleep, the #Packers game is still just as painful. #Returntherealrefs.”

Well, for more on the various sides in this dispute and what it means, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by longtime sportswriter Dave Zirin.

Dave, explain what’s going on here, and tell us exactly who these refs are and who’s locked out.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, absolutely. The referees who are locked out are part-time employees of the National Football League. They make roughly $8,000 a week, and they have historically had pensions. Their contract ended, and the National Football League owners decided to lock them out and not negotiate in good faith. Now, the amount it would cost to get the regular referees back is the same amount as for a 30-second Super Bowl ad. It would be $62,000 per team per week, which is a pittance for a $9.3 billion business. But the NFL owners have decided to pursue this strategy, and so they have brought in a series of officials who—I mean, at the risk of sounding unkind—are unskilled, untrained scabs who are in over their heads on an NFL field in front of 70,000 fans. They have no idea what they’re doing. And that’s what made Monday night such a big story, is that it crystallized in front of a national audience the problems of both corporate arrogance as well as unskilled, non-union workers.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dave Zirin, can you explain why people like—as we mentioned, why people like Scott Walker have come out in favor of the referees’ union?

DAVE ZIRIN: I mean, I would argue, personally, it’s because Scott Walker might be a sociopath. I mean, this is somebody who does not care if there are untrained teachers in the classrooms of Wisconsin, does not care if there are untrained, non-unionized firefighters putting out the fires in Wisconsin, but desperately wants skilled union officials on the field. But the bigger reason is that Scott Walker, like Paul Ryan, they’re both Green Bay Packers fans, which is also very ironic, because the Green Bay Packers are the one team in the National Football League that don’t actually have a billionaire plutocrat in the owner’s box overseeing the proceedings. They’re owned by over 200,000 fans in a collective manner, which also goes against the Randian philosophy which seems to guide Scott Walker and Paul Ryan, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read a comment from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about the pension issue. He told the Huffington Post, quote, “From the owners’ standpoint, right now they’re funding a pension program that is a defined benefit program… About 10 percent of the country has that. Yours truly doesn’t have that. It’s something that doesn’t really exist anymore and that I think is going away steadily.” Dave Zirin, your response?

DAVE ZIRIN: I mean, we’re hearing this rhetoric in all walks of American life. It’s not dissimilar from Mitt Romney saying, well, if you get sick, you should just go to the ER. I mean, the idea that just because you have a pension, therefore you’re a lucky American worker and don’t deserve a pension, that’s the same rhetoric that Scott Walker used in attacking the teachers and the firefighters and public workers in Wisconsin. We’re hearing this across the American landscape. And it’s so ironic that all of this is coming out and happening at the same time that Forbes Magazine put out its report about the incredible disparities that exist in this country—the growth of wealth of the 1 percent, the dropping of 4 percent in wages for American workers. And it’s just more of that rhetoric. Roger Goodell says he doesn’t have a pension. Roger Goodell makes $20 million a year; he does not need a pension. And this is the arrogance of ownership in the National Football League, and I think this is one of the reasons why it’s an explosive political issue and, frankly, why we’re talking about it on Democracy Now!, because it writes large for the country exactly what’s the problem with class in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Lingerie Football League claiming it fired several current NFL officiating crews, refs?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yes, yes. And first of all, I’m going to guess that the majority of Democracy Now! listeners do not know what the Lingerie Football League is. Let’s just say they are better off for it. But the Lingerie Football League, several of its referees are actually matriculated in the National Football League. They are on the field making calls. Suffice it to say, there is a gap in the rulebook between the Lingerie Football League and the National Football League. But these same referees have now been fired by the Lingerie Football League for incompetence, which says something about the product on the field. I mean, this is unbelievable. This is such corporate arrogance. I think this would be like if Coca-Cola said, “You know what? Our brand is so powerful, we don’t need to carbonate our soda anymore.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

DAVE ZIRIN: “It’s just going to be flat soda, and America will love it.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds. Concussions?

DAVE ZIRIN: Concussions. NFL players, this risks their health and safety. The only thing that would end this lockout would be if NFL players engage in a sympathy strike on the basis of their own health and safety, and that’s something the Green Bay Packers are already talking about. So keep an eye on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, I want to thank you very much for being with us, sports columnist for The Nation magazine, host of Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius/XM. His books include Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Game We Love.

And that does it for the show. We’re on 100-city tour, which continues today in Storrs, Connecticut. I’ll be speaking at the University of Connecticut Student Union Theater in Storrs at 7:30; then on Thursday, Arlington, Virginia, at George Mason University Founder’s Hall, Room 125, at 7:30; Friday night in Charlottesville, Virginia, at 7:00 p.m. at the Nau Auditorium South Lawn Commons, University of Virginia; Saturday, Green Fest in Washington, D.C.; then on to the Baltimore Book Fest on Saturday night; then on Sunday at Richmond, Virginia; 7:00 p.m. in Norfolk, Virginia; then Virginia Tech on Monday.

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