October 1, 2012


Razzle Dazzle

Union Needed to Protect Management From Itself


The National Football League’s handling of its dispute with its referees offered a thumping rejoinder to the educated souls among us who question whether unions haven’t outlived their usefulness in the United States.

The Monday Night Fiasco left the league’s owners and their commissioner faced with the choice of hanging tough and flushing their sport’s credibility into the sewer or splitting the difference on what amounted to chump change in the $9.3-billion-a-year industry and getting the game officials back on the field before incompetent scabs did greater damage to the bottom line.

“This is a perfect example of what happens when you take your union professionals for granted and assume you can get better on the outside,” Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch said Sept. 27, hours after an agreement in principle had been reached to end the owners’ lockout.

There was something sobering, however, about the fact that it took a glaringly bad mis-call that not only altered the final outcome of the Green Bay-Seattle game but changed the flow of tens of millions of dollars that were bet on that game—the elephant in the room that no one discusses but has watered the league into the mightiest tree in the forest of professional sports—to bring the owners around. A missed call a day earlier—when an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit by a Pittsburgh Steeler defender on Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey knocked him unconscious and led to his being hospitalized with a neck injury—had not elicited comparable outrage; it merely got rolled into the growing list of errors of both commission and omission by the scab officials.

Fines Not the Best Deterrent

But then, we shouldn’t be that surprised, given the fact that, despite an exhaustively documented series of articles in the New York Times in recent years about pro football players in dozens of cases developing dementia by their early 40s because of too many head-on collisions and the resulting concussions being shrugged off as just part of the game, the NFL still treats deliberate smashes to the head as something to be handled with fines rather than lengthy suspensions of the players who are repeat offenders and their coaches. (The Steelers, a modern-day version of the Raiders minus the motorcycle-gang veneer, have a particular propensity for such tactics, and for vehemently protesting when the league penalizes them.)

Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Al Hagan said it was not a revelation that the Packer game’s outcome, rather than the hit that could have left Mr. Heyward-Bey paralyzed, was the straw that broke the owners’ back in the labor dispute.

“The decision on the replacement refs was strictly economic, and not a safety decision,” he said of the owners’ determination to gain greater control over retirement costs and have the ability to fire less-capable field officials while limiting pay raises, even at a time when the league is flush with prosperity following new TV contracts that continue to climb the stratosphere. “If the NFL sensed legal liability from an injured player, then they would stress safety. I understand that—it’s strictly business. It’s natural for these guys to grab as much as they can and not worry about the consequences.”

Of course, the NFL is facing sizable legal liability as the result of lawsuits filed by retired players who are suffering from brain diseases and believe it’s the result of their teams not exercising caution about resting them long enough for them to recover from their concussions, leading to their sustaining subsequent brain injuries with more-severe damage done. Several players, wracked by dementia at an early age, have committed suicide. One of them, former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, last year shot himself in the chest so that, unlike with some of his comrades who took their lives, his brain would remain intact to be studied for evidence of how much his disease was attributable to his football career.

Putting a Price on Safety

Mr. Hagan said, however, that to this point, with the league now being more careful about not rushing players with concussions back into action, it appeared to believe that it could limit its liability enough to not feel forced to act so strongly against illegal hits to the head as to curb the aggressive play that fires up crowds and is so popular on the highlight shows. He likened it to the problem Ford had with its Pinto model a few decades ago when the first evidence was produced that if the car was hit from behind, it would explode into flames because of faulty design. The auto company did an analysis of the costs it would face from lawsuits versus the expense of recalling all the Pintos that were on the road. “It was cheaper to pay the settlements, so that’s what they did,” he said.

Anthony Wells, the president of Social Service Employees Union Local 371 of District Council 37, also said there was nothing surprising about the Heyward-Bey incident not being sufficient to move the league to end the lockout by reaching an agreement with the NFL Referees Association.

“The player’s injury would not translate into loss of revenue for the league,” he explained. “The bottom line in sports is the dollar.”

As it turned out, the Packer game’s stunning conclusion—with a Seattle Seahawk wide

receiver first illegally pushing a defender to prevent him from knocking down a pass without being spotted by one of the scab officials, then being credited with a touchdown catch even though it was clear that another defender had intercepted the pass and cradled it to his body before the receiver reached in and gained shared possession of the ball—did not leave the betting world’s version of the house, the Las Vegas sports books, shouting bloody murder. They actually made out nicely, since most of the money they took on the game was bet on Green Bay laying between 3 and 4 points and the touchdown vaulted Seattle from losing by 5 to winning by 2.

Creating Riotous Conditions

In this case, however, the majority of bettors being the ones who got hosed by the horrendous officiating, as well as it being obvious to anyone who didn’t have money on the game that the refs had blown the call egregiously, created a public-relations firestorm so widespread that it became one of the rare occasions when President Obama and the New York Post editorial board were on the same side of an issue.

The league is so hyper-conscious of its image that it has looked to avoid all references by TV broadcasters to gambling and the point-spread because it believes that it must protect the “integrity of the game” despite indisputable anecdotal evidence that betting is what has made the NFL the colossus that it has been in the half-century since it surpassed baseball as the nation’s favorite sport. But it was abruptly confronted by the embarrassment of having incompetent officiating change the outcome of a high-profile game. And though the scab officials were the prime target of the public’s ire, there was no question that the owners had done this to themselves by sticking to their hard line three games into the regular season, even as evidence mounted that the replacement refs not only couldn’t call the game properly but that their inadequacies posed threats to both individual players’ safety and the safety of everyone inside the stadium as tempers flared and the mood grew uglier among players and coaches victimized by some of the bad calls.

A Different Integrity Issue

You had to wonder whether Paul Hornung was laughing about the state of the league. He had been the league’s biggest star a half-century ago, having led the Packers to two consecutive championships in 1961 and 1962, when the following spring he was suspended for a year for betting on football. He had admitted wagering up to $500 on some games—although never betting against his own team—when confronted by then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle, and along with Alex Karras, a star defensive tackle with the Detroit Lions who had bet $100 a game or less, he was banished because their wagers, and their being in the company of gamblers, were deemed to have hurt the league’s integrity.

Given their being two of the league’s better-paid players, the amounts they wagered were trivial; just about as trivial as the $3.2 million (in a business where several franchises have been assessed as being worth more than $1 billion) that separated the owners’ position from the referees’ union’s a few days before the situation burst into flames. Yet the owners, and the commissioner who negotiates for them, Roger Goodell, were ready to throw down the gauntlet and threaten the integrity of their business in their bid to exert control, just as they had a year earlier in locking out the players until an agreement was reached in late July, cancelling one exhibition game but settling before any games were played that counted in the standings.

Exhibitions At Premium Prices

Even those preseason games counted for plenty at the box office, however. I remember standing in a Brooklyn synagogue last Rosh Hashanah with a friend I’ve known since kindergarten who grew up to be a fairly wealthy businessman whose indulgences had included Giants’ season tickets for more than a decade. He eventually gave them up, but when the team decided to sell personal seat licenses as it moved into a new stadium it shared with the Jets a couple of years ago, suddenly many other fans weren’t interested in paying tens of thousands of dollars for each PSL simply to retain seats they had held for good chunks of their adult lives.

And so, he told me, a Giants ticket rep had called to see whether he might be interested in signing up for three seats similar to those he had held before the switch from Giants’ Stadium to the glitzier edifice at the other end of the parking lot that is named for an insurance company. The seats were good but not great, and he might have considered springing for the $36,000 for the PSLs, my friend said, but it would have cost him another $15,000 for the 2011 tickets.

You didn’t have to be a math major to quickly calculate that each ticket cost him $500, simply because the package included two preseason games at the same price as the eight regular home contests. Meaning the Giants, while long known for having one of the league’s classiest operations, were skinning the customers at the regular-season rates for exhibitions in which most of their top players would see little action. Since my friend has three daughters in their early 20s, given the choice of getting scalped by the Giants or banking the money as a start towards paying for weddings, he decided he’d rather enjoy the games in the comfort of his living room.

Karras Among League’s Victims

I thought it was a nice touch that this stick-up in my friend’s case would have been for the same amount that got Mr. Hornung banned for betting a half-century ago. Mr. Karras, who bet far less, would have less reason to be amused. After having a prominent role in a football movie, Paper Lion, based on George Plimpton’s tryout with the team for a magazine article, Mr. Karras went on to a nice career in broadcasting and acting. He declared on one Monday Night Football telecast that a scary-looking defensive lineman was a graduate of “the University of Mars” and played memorable roles in Blazing Saddles and Victor/Victoria. But earlier this year he joined the ranks of more than 1,000 former players suing the NFL for not doing more to protect them from head injuries, saying that he was diagnosed with dementia seven years ago and had exhibited signs of it as far back as the late 1990s.

Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook remarked, “The owners, the cable networks, the regular networks make money on the backs of the workers. They play their hearts out and not enough is done to protect them.”

Those who competed in the years when the NFL came into its own during the 1960s and 1970s have also faulted the players union for not doing enough to supplement their relatively meager pensions once the boom of TV revenue made it possible. And a management that has offered little more than lip service to those who helped make the game what it is but missed out on the gold rush was intent on taking away the pensions that its ancillary field workers, the game officials, had been receiving.

Phasing in a 401(k)

That became one of the two biggest obstacles to getting a deal, along with the owners’ desire to have what amounted to a training school from which new officials could be appointed to replace those with lower ratings. In the end, the two sides compromised: new hires will immediately go into a 401(k) plan, with the initial contribution about half of the $38,000 a year they were reported to be paying toward an incumbent’s future pension, and the current pension will continue only until 2016, or when an official reaches 20 years of service, after which they will accrue future retirement benefits through a 401(k).

Mr. Wells and Mr. Hagan both questioned the wisdom of the NFL Referees Association in making this compromise.

“I’m concerned about going from a defined benefit to a defined contribution,” the Local 371 leader said.

For the fire officers union president, at least as troubling was the creation of a two-tier compensation system, something the city’s uniformed unions have wrestled with over the past 25 years at the bargaining table in terms of salaries and, more recently, with the placement of newer members in either Tier 3 or Tier 6 of the pension system.

‘Danger in Giving Up Unborn’

“I always feel there’s a tremendous danger giving up your unborn,” Mr. Hagan said. “At some point there will be more [NFL officials] without a pension than have it. What’s to stop them from selling out the people who have the pension?” Unlike for public employees in New York State, he pointed out, the Referees Association has no legal guarantee to protect against a diminution of pension benefits.

Both men said that the settlement allowing pro football to return to what passes for normal in the eyes of both the participants and the general public was likely to obscure the larger reality that led the owners to play this game of chicken over money they didn’t need. As Mr. Hagan put it, “Unions are definitely under a major coordinated attack all over the country.”

Even in cases where they offer the kind of quality control that protects management from its worst impulses.