25 September 2012

Tuesday Football: No rules, no peace

There is nothing they can do to hurt the demand of the game.  So the bottom line is they don’t care. Player safety doesn’t matter in this case. Bring Division III officials? Doesn’t matter. Because in the end you’re still going to watch the game. 
-- Steve Young, criticizing NFL owners on an ESPN post-game show
The scabs who've been blowing call after call at NFL games for weeks went too far for the elebenty hundreth time last night, awarding the Seahawks a victory that rightfully belonged to the Packers.  The army of critics calling for the return of the real officials keeps growing.  Even noted union-busters Scott Walker and Paul Ryan have called for the return of the union refs.

When I heard the news about those two Republicans today, my first instinct was to dismiss their calls as the cries of two more aggrieved Packer fans.  That might be the case for Walker and Ryan, but what about their supporters?  Their ranks include fans of every NFL team -- including the Seahawks -- so team loyalty can't explain their newfound support for the locked-out NFL Referees Association (NFLRA).  Yet, that support is unlikely to extend to other labor unions.

The difference, I think, is that unlike most other unionized workers, the men of the NFLRA are in the business of regulation.  Sporting bodies may set rules for their games and competitions, but it's referees whose job it is to enforce them.  To do their job, referees work as teams, usually in opposition to the two teams that are actually playing.  [See:  Laimbeer, Bill; Klinsmann, Jürgen; or most recently, Harbaugh, Jim.]  Referee teamwork is always critical, but it's especially so in the NFL, where seven-official crews must coordinate their actions tightly.

The replacements who are calling NFL games these days may know the rules, but it's clear that they haven't learned to work together.  If they had, they would have long ago figured out what qualifies as pass interference, or illegal helmet-to-helmet contact, or even, apparently, a touchdown.  What we have here isn't just a failure to communicate, nor is it just a case of greedy owners refusing to pay the actual referees.

It's what happens when regulation itself is weakened to the point of irrelevancy.

Not that we're short of examples from other industries.  Recent history is full of examples of disasters could have been prevented with proper regulation.  Instead, affected industries have talked governments into reducing regulatory staffs -- referees, if you will -- to bare minima.  The regulators are still there, but there aren't enough around to enforce the laws.

And that's the way some industries like it.  The same dynamic drives the outsourcers of the world.  A decade ago, IT workers like myself railed against our replacement by less competent programmers who lived abroad.  We could prove that our replacements' work was so much worse that they had to work twice as long (or longer).  No matter.  The replacements were cheaper, any way.  Even when our immediate bosses agreed with us, and their bosses did too, it didn't matter.  The corporate head office wanted the cheaper labor, even if quality went down.

Which is why NFL owners won't budge yet.  The scabs do their job badly, and they're ruining the game.  But they don't care, because expenses are being cut.  Better yet, the rules of the game itself have now come under assault.  I can think of more than a couple of owners who might not mind that, either.


Matthew Hubbard said...

I wonder if a drop in ratings would make them notice. Sadly, I think the fans are addicts and will watch regardless of the quality of officiating.

I agree with Steve Young. Inelasticity is a bitch.

Abu Scooter said...

True that, Matt. Devotion isn't the only factor; large numbers of fans might stick around just to watch the developing train wreck.

Also, fans really have nothing else to watch on Sunday. [Baseball and the CFL might provide alternatives, but only until November at the latest.] Either they simply turn their TVs off altogether and do something else, or they watch the NFL.