The NFL Referees are Our New Working Class Heroes

Well, sort of.  Yesterday the National Football League was forced to end its lock out of its referees and sign a contract with them. The referees returned to the field to a standing ovation from the players, the fans and the public. Their nemesis, once valorized NFL “hard line” commissioner Whitebread Goodell, was vilified and thrown to the curb by his former allies in the corporate class. It’s a sign of how far  U.S. capitalism is falling that the class struggle is playing out between the underdog football referees who make $250,000 a year for part time work against 32 billionaire “owners” who tried to break the referees association and failed.

Look, “spectator” sports is a strange pastime—tens of millions of people watching 32 football teams with 53 players on each team who are among the best athletes in the world. But these players, overwhelmingly Black, are apparently “owned;” or at least that is the theory of a group of pasty white billionaires who called themselves, not surprisingly, “the owners.”  Exhibit A: Jerry Jones, the $2 billion net worth “owner” of the Dallas Cowboys, who made his money from Jones Oil and Lease in Arkansas. (See William C. Rhoden’s brilliant “Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete“).

The owners further abuse the players by making them sign multi-year contracts that do not pay them if they are injured. This in a game where enormous men run into each other at full speed and most “retire” with permanent and debilitating injuries. (See the heartbreaking story in the September 10, 2012 Sports Illustrated, “The Other Side of the Story” by Melissa Segura. She tells of former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon, the scores of former NFL football players suffering from early onset dementia and every possible version of PTSD from football injuries, and the wives and girlfriends whose lives are a living hell in trying to take care of them as they rage into delusion and pain. Faced with a class action lawsuit by many crippled former players, the owners deny any responsibility for their bloody business.)

So this year, the National Football League, a $9 billion a year business, decided to get tough with its referees. How many of them? One hundred twenty one.  They locked the refs out when they would not agree to the league’s demands, and instead, brought in “replacement refs” who gave the Three Stooges a bad name. The refs threw flags all over the field, allowed teams extra time outs, botched the rules and made instant replay cameras the only hope for law and order. So what provoked the owners to initiate this class warfare? That 32 billionaires wanted to end the socialism of what is called “defined benefit plans” where companies pay into a pension plan for employees so that after they retire they have a guaranteed sum of money every year. Instead, the owners wanted the referees to give up guaranteed pensions to be replaced with so called 401K plans, where employees have to contribute a lot of their own money to pay for their own retirement. The life and death battle against pensions is another front in the corporate ideological struggle against any form of employee “rights.”

So after 4 weeks of ugly officiating by the replacement refs, the NFL was hit by the perfect storm. Last Monday night, in front of a TV audience 16 million viewers, the replacement refs erroneously awarded a touchdown to the Seattle Seahawks on the last play of the game (with a classic picture of one ref calling it an interception and the other a catch) that gave them a victory against the Green Bay Packers. The country that did not rise up when 250,000 Black people were driven out of New Orleans after Katrina rose in mass fury over the travesty of injustice on a football field in Green Bay Wisconsin.  Seventy thousand people called the National Football League office demanding the regular referees be reinstated. President Obama, Bill Clinton, and Mitt Romney, running ahead of the parade, condemned the NFL and its replacement referees as an attack on truth, justice, and the American way of life. This in turn led to a victory for the striking referees—sort of. They won the battle of ideas, if for only a minute—that working people, no matter how privileged, can stand up to the big bosses and win. They got to keep their pensions, if for only 5 years, after which the defined pensions are over and the dreaded 401Ks will come into play. But these are the terms of the class struggle right now—we are happy with symbolic victories until more substantial victories can be won. For at least one day the masses rose up, the “real” referees were restored to power and the coup was defeated. So here’s to the refs: “substitute” proletarians who fought for all of us—as the bus riders, public school teachers, Black and Latino high school students, and Third World Movements will have to continue the fight.


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