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Safety and the NFL Referee Lockout


Travis Waldron has a very good piece up at Think Progress about the referee lockout and player safety.

The National Football League Players Association, a year removed from being locked out by NFL owners, are monitoring the NFL’s current lockout of the league’s officials for its ramifications on player safety, the union’s top official told ThinkProgress. And as officials attempt to end their dispute with the league before the start of the regular season next week, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said the union reserved the right to examine “every possible remedy” to ensure the safety of its players.

The use of replacement officials, Smith said, “flies in the face” of the players’ efforts to make the game safer during their own negotiations, which resulted in a lockout by NFL owners, before the 2011 season. “The issues that we, the players, pushed hard for in the collective bargaining agreement were structural, fundamental changes in the way football is played,” Smith said. “All that flies in the face of a unilateral decision to prevent the most experienced on-field first responders from being involved in an incredibly physically challenging activity.”

It’s clear that the owners value union-busting far more than player safety, to which they only give lip service. Waldron gets to the crux of it:

It’s quite clear, from the memo and from the NFL’s actions to this point, that the league has embraced the tried-and-true corporate strategy of locking out its workers and then attempting to wait them out, hoping to settle on its own terms. The easiest way out now, it seems, is for officials to abandon their fight, but Arnold made it sound as if the NFLRA is prepared to continue waiting for the NFL to negotiate. “They locked us out. We’ve been serious, made major concessions, and have been willing to negotiate. But all they’ve told us is to take it or leave it,” Arnold said. “It takes two sides to negotiate. We’re prepared, we’re ready to go.”

Again, I don’t think this is going to work for the NFL, not with real games on the line, not with playoff performances on the line, not with 24-7 sports radio talking about the replacement refs costing teams games. But the NFL is simply the most prominent employer using early 21st-century union-busting tactics. This type of thing is happening all over the country without 1% of the coverage the referees receive.

Speaking of NFL player safety, Jeffri Chadiha has a good list of 10 concrete things the NFL could do to make players safer, including eliminating kickoffs, forcing all concussed players to sit a minimum of 1 full game, and creating a licensing board that would declare whether players are healthy enough to be certified to play. Of course, the owners will hate most of this because it will mean higher labor costs through the expanded rosters necessary to cover for the concussion depletions.

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  • Sherm

    All good points. But it would be nice if the NFLPA took the lead on player safety issues and fought for its former members, many of whom suffer from health and financial issues as a result of their NFL careers. They’re really no better than the scumbag owners on these issues.

    • mpowell

      What are you talking about? Former NFL players have a vastly better deal than any other professional athelete. Maybe having to get 5 years of experience at the pro level is too high of a bar to get a pension, but it’s a very nice pension.

  • Socraticsilence

    Isn’t a wait them out strategy kind of flawed, when the people you’re waiting out actually have better paying jobs they do the majority of their working lives?

    • Richard

      We’ll see. Loomis predicted just a few days ago that the league and the ref union would settle just before the start of the first game. That wont happen now (since no negotiations are scheduled to take place and it would take a week to get ref assignments, travel plans, etc in place assuming a deal was reached with the union).

      Most if not all the refs have good jobs and use their NFL salaries as supplementary income but they all enjoy the prestige and excitement of being a NFL ref. The NFL seems like it wants to go to full time refs and, if thats the case, would have no problem in just losing the current ref work force.

      The Loomis view is that the fans and owners will be so outraged at the inadequacy of the replacement crews that they will revolt and force the commissioner to settle. I’m not so sure. I listened a little bit to local sports talk radio this morning and while the discussion was all about the opening of the season, no one mentioned the ref lockout. Are fans really that worked up about this?

      • I still think there will be a last minute agreement.

        • Richard

          I dont think thats possible anymore before the first game because of the work assignments, travel arrangements, etc but we’ll see. The NFL has announced that its going with replacements for the first game (of course, they could be bluffing) and I think they have made a decision to do that and see what input/outcry they get after the first week.

          • I guarantee you this is all worked out already in case of an agreement.

            I don’t guarantee that it will happen–maybe the NFL is stupid enough to go to the regular season with scabs. But if they do, the fan outcry will be fierce when they screw up.

            • Sherm

              They will screw up. And the fans will scream. But how will that cost the owners a single penny?

            • Richard

              I dont think thats right, Erik. Since the league and the union aren’t even talking right now and the league has announced that theyre going with replacements in the first game, I dont think they’ve made contingency plans with the union guys – assignments, air travel, hotel rooms, etc – in the event there is an unexpected settlement this weekend. But we’ll see. I think the league has made its decision for the first week and will play it by ear thereafter depending on fan and owner reaction.

              • Richard

                One other thing. League says they haven’t been in contact with union refs for seven months. Before every season, they do a physical assessment of the refs and have them attend a training session of several days regarding rule changes. That hasn’t been done for the union members which, if the league is to be believed, makes deployment of the union members at the first games impossible.

      • Also–fans are not worked up about it now.

        But they will be worked up when scab refs cost them a win. That will send them through the roof.

        • Joshua

          I was surfing ESPN’s comments page and they weren’t pro-union, but more like “NFL needs to STFU and pay them. I will be out-of-my-mind upset if the replacements cost my team a game.”

          So, in other words, that which you predicted.

          • Exactly.

          • Richard

            But if there is no horribly egregious game changing error in the first week, the fans will likely forget about the issue.

            • No–I think you don’t understand how NFL fans work. They don’t give a shit about labor issues. They care about their teams and that’s it. There’s no big meta issue here for them. It’s how it affects their team. And when it happens, as it will, whether week 1, 2, or 3, that fan base is going to go ballistic and that’s going to create a ton of pressure on the NFL.

              • Cody

                Honesty, it’s hard to imagine fans not disputing a call in ANY game.

                Usually they’re mad at the normal refs, but now they’re all going to say “well, we can’t blame the scabs – they’re new at this! And it’s all the NFLs fault we don’t have those old refs we love so much”

            • Joshua

              Not necessarily.

              I don’t want the preseason but from what I understand the replacement refs have been horrifically bad and noticeably degraded the “product on the field.” For a preseason game, this is a noteworthy achievement.

              It doesn’t even have to be bad calls.

              • Joshua

                want = watch

              • Furious Jorge

                I went to a preseason game this year (free tickets, that’s the only reason), and the inadequacy of the scab refs was very definitely a topic of conversation up in the nosebleed seats.

          • Njorl

            I figure with these referee’s costing other people’s teams all these games, my team has will just coast into the playoffs.

            • Njorl

              “has will” it’s the new past future tense.

    • mpowell

      I had been wondering why the refs were opposed to having any full-time referees, but I wonder if this is the answer. They know that a full-time referee work force is at the mercy of the NFL to a degree that they currently are not. It’s a hell of a lot easier to strike/sit out a lockout at a second job.

  • Njorl

    One very effective change to improve player safety would be to roll back the changes they’ve made to pass defense. The ease of passing has had several detrimental effects for player safety.

    Making a play on the ball is much harder now. This raises the premium on hitting the receiver to force an incompletion or fumble. These are some of the most likely hits to cause injuries.

    Tackling is a less valuable skill than it used to be because it is harder to force punts now. A good clean tackle might leave a team with a 3rd and 4 instead of a 3rd and 2. Big deal. You’re better off blowing tackles but causing some fumbles. Sometimes this means pounding someone so they’re stunned. Sometimes it means holding someone up so they can be stripped. Both of these situations create a higher likelihood of injury. If moving the ball is harder, forcing punts, rather than fumbles, becomes the better plan.

    The passing rules have also magnified the value of a good quarterback. By making the most important player on the team even more valuable, the NFL has enhanced the value of hurting the QB. Every team wants to hit the other QB as often as possible. Even if it doesn’t affect the play, if you can legally hit the QB, it does some good. Pounding him repeatedly affects his performance, and his performance is critical to the outcome of the game. Reduce the value of hurting the QB, and fewer QBs will be hurt.

    • mpowell

      But punts are a lot less exciting to watch. You are mostly correct, but those changes definitely improve the quality of the product. There is still a lot of stuff they could do to reduce player injury. For one they could allow defensive and offensive holding. That would probably be a wash for the passing game, but it would slow receivers down, minimizing big impacts, and it would make it a lot easier to protect QBs. Klosterman wrote an article proposing these changes, but I have been talking about it for a number of years with my friends. I’d also get rid of false starts which is a rule I don’t understand how it ever got into the game. So ridiculous.

  • angry bitter drunk

    Oh, this is about pensions. What do you think this is, the 1980s? You can’t have pensions for anyone below the CEO level.

    The owners will go forever with replacements, and they give not a damn about the fan or media outcry that is likely to come once the games count. The referee’s union could be the PATCO of our time…

  • Just Dropping By

    OK, I read the Jeffri Chadiha piece and it all makes sense except for one thing: eliminating kickoffs. I understand from the article that there’s research showing that moving the distance of the kickoff reduced concussions, but I can’t figure out how that works. To me, the kickoff seems like the time that you’d be least likely to have head injuries happening since, at least of the games I can think of, there’s little if any tackling that takes place during the kickoff.

    • Sherm

      That’ll never happen. Too exciting of a play to eliminate, and it would be pretty hard to make a comeback without the onside kick.

    • Cody

      The reason for the high concussion on kick-offs is speed.

      After a kick-off, everyone is running at full speed towards each other trying to make a head-on tackle. During normal play almost no one achieves full speed, and the tackles are usually from the side or back.

      • Richard

        Is there any evidence to indicate that concussions are more common on kick-offs than during “normal” play?

    • Kickoffs have the highest concussion/play ratio by far. These are head-on collisions at full speed, basically out of control.

      • Richard

        Are there studies to confirm that? I think its likely but just dont know if there is empirical evidence.

        • It’s indisputable. And I believe there are studies but I don’t actually know. But no disputes this.

          • Richard

            I don’t have any question that more players are moving faster on kick-offs and that this is conceivably very dangerous. But is there a study showing that kickoffs have a higher concussion ratio than on other plays? It seems to me that this should be a fairly simple study to do I dont, however, buy the argument that, in the absence of any studies, its “undisputable”.

            • Sherm
              • Richard

                Thanks. So last year there were 20 concussions on kickoffs compared to 266 total concussions. And the year before it was 35 concussions on kickoffs compared to 270 total concussions. I dont know the exact ratio of kickoffs to non-kickoff plays but it would have to be lower than one to thirteen which would indicate that kickoff plays have a higher concussion ratio than non-kickoff plays.

                • Sherm

                  And in 2010 (before the rule changes) it was 1/8. I don’t feel like doing any math right now, but there is no way in hell one out of every eight plays is a kickoff.

                • Richard


                • mpowell

                  By the way, it is widely known that kickoffs are dangerous plays. That is why wedges are now illegal as well. And why you never have good players playing special teams. Those guys get injured constantly. It’s possible for this kind of conventional wisdom to be wrong, but in this case it’s extremely unlikely and there are probably studies on the general injury rates as well.

                  It’s not just tackles were injuries happen. Players run at each other at full speed and then slam into each as part of the blocking on these plays as well. It’s insane.

                • Pseudonym

                  But how do kickoffs compare in concussions/second or concussions/yard?

                  If the real problem is full-speed collisions, how about making all the players wear potato sacks for kickoffs?

        • TT

          Everybody is either already hitting or about to hit somebody else on a kickoff. TV coverage obscures this because the camera is directed to follow the ball and then the ball carrier. But when you watch it either in person or when they show the game-film view from high up on either end of the stadium, it’s jarring how massively violent kickoffs really are.

        • Sherm

          There were studies, but they are probably dated now due to the recent rules changes.

          They recently moved the kickoff up from the 30 to the 35; eliminated the wedge block (which was very dangerous); and shortened the defenders’ head start before the kick from 15 to 5 yards. They could eliminate the two-man wedge block, but I’m not sure what else can be done at this point.

  • Jim Lynch

    “Goose killed in quest for golden eggs”.

    The NFL players union is spineless, and damn near as culpable for the lock-out as the owners. Nothing but their own greed prevents the union from attacking the owner’s intransigence. Instead, crickets. You can bet the union will be singing a different tune when- not if- the scab ref’s incompetence lends itself to a career ending injury. Might even happen to Andrew Luck on his opening series.

    Playing regular season games with scab officials is like buying a Ferrari and hiring your drunken brother-in-law as a mechanic because it’s cheaper than taking it to a proper mechanic.

    • Richard

      The players contract with the league has a no strike clause. That means it CAN’T strike in support of the refs. (And the last holdout would never have been settled without the inclusion of a no strike clause). The player’s union has no options here. They can say that the issue concerns them (as they have done)and that they are exploring options but they have no power to act

      • Jim Lynch

        I didn’t mention a players strike because I was aware of all that. But nothing prevents the union leadership from speaking freely, and publicly confronting the owners in the interest of their membership.

        Come to think of it, it sort of like the problem the democratic rank and file has with the leadership of their party.

        • Jim Lynch

          Richard: I re-read your post.

          My point being: Even if the players union has a gentlemen’s agreement where “peripheral” labor beefs are concerned (and, if they do, fuck them), their muted input concerning this lock-out fundamentally betrays the interests of their membership.

        • Pseudonym

          So they just need to use the power of the bully pulpit?

          • Jim Lynch

            They could, and should.

  • Quercus

    It’s my understanding that the League isn’t trying to cut referee salaries, but rather make referees go full time (gradually). Now this hurts the current referees, since they all have paying day jobs, so they’re naturally against it. But if the League wins, labor costs would actually increase. Is this correct, or have i been the victim of ownership propaganda?

    • Richard

      The league is actually offering a pay increase (but not the one sought by the refs) but there are several issues, one of which is a group of full time refs (which could conceivably lead to all full time refs in the future). I think you are right that costs would not decrease for the league under the proposal it has on the table. I dont know if the full time ref proposal is the stumbling block to a settlement or whether some of the other differences are what is causing the current situation

    • mpowell

      I have been wondering about that myself because the league is only proposing 7 full time refs for now and you would think at least 7 of those guys would have no problem with it. Two possibilities in my mind: 1) the refs don’t want to see that number expanded and 2) (mentioned up thread) they don’t want to lose the negotiating power they have by holding another job on the side during this kind of labor dispute.

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