The NFL referee lockout will go down as the most moronic move by an organization in labor talks history. There may have been a dumber move sometime, somewhere, but none played out on a bigger national stage or affected more people—gamblers, fans and fantasy football team owners.
Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, has become the poster boy of sports management idiocy, but that’s really not fair. Goodell works for the owners. Had Jeffrie Lurie, Jerry Jones and the crew wanted a deal, a deal would have been done long before now. Goodell was just following the orders of the arrogant.
A year after locking out the NFL players, with great success, the owners felt confident in locking out the lowly referees. Here’s the problem with that strategy: If the players’ lockout continued into the season, games would have been cancelled. But with the ref lockout, the games still have to be played.
That’s when some genius came up with the idea of replacement refs, which led to another problem. All of the good non-NFL refs are already committed to work college football games—leaving small college, junior college, high school and even a few Lingerie Football League refs. Not one had experience with the noise and size of the crowds or the speed and size of the players.
To make matters worse, the refs didn’t know all of the NFL rules. They had two months to get up to speed. They didn’t.
There was a series of blown calls climaxing with the owners’ worst fear, a debacle on Monday Night Football that changed the outcome of the game. What had been a sports story became a lead news story and much more. Both the President and Mitt Romney commented on the call and the lockout. The blown call became the lead on the Today Show and Good Morning America, shows that normally don’t even cover sports. Even the ladies on The View chimed in. The owners’ idiocy was no longer just fodder for football fans, it was mainstream moron.
The NFL is nothing but a brilliant mirage. It exists, more than anything else, on image. Well, image and gambling. That image has been damaged, not irreparably, but damaged nonetheless. An organization that prides itself on marketing and public relations screwed up big time.
And here is the kicker. You know how much the owners would have had to pay to make this whole thing go away last summer? Less than a hundred thousand dollars per team. They spend more than that on Gatorade.
For the cost of liquid refreshment and an occasional coach drenching, the league not only lost its leverage, but a whole lot of pride and integrity.
When the refs come back they will be greeted with something they have never received before, a standing ovation. They will be returning heroes. A few minutes later, they will undoubtedly get booed. And then all will be right with the world again.