After three weeks of an NFL referee lockout, the officials and league commissioner Roger Goodell came to terms with an agreement, ending a controversial start to the season with replacement referees. The Chronicle’s sports editor Andrew Beaton spoke to Duke Law professor Paul Haagen, an expert on sports labor law, about the lockout and its effect on the league.
The Chronicle: Are you surprised it took this long for the lockout to end?
Paul Haagen: No, I’m not. Basically, the NFL has been attempting to redo its labor situations and labor relations—obviously most importantly with the players, but just in general—and used the lockout as a tool to do that. I expected that [the NFL] was going to negotiate and negotiate hard. I think what the NFL didn’t actually calculate on is that the game officials would show that much solidarity and stay out that long and be that organized. I also think they didn’t credit the importance of the officials to the game.
TC: Do you think the NFL thought the officials were replaceable commodities and the replacements would not have a big impact on the game?
PH: I think they thought that it would be close enough that it would actually give them substantial leverage and get the officials to agree to their negotiating position. Not that they thought there was no difference—they clearly spend an enormous amount of time evaluating officials and one of the negotiated points was to try and create more officials so that the less good ones could be disciplined, incentivized or replaced. So, clearly they know there is a difference. I think they weren’t quite anticipating how big the difference would be in public perception in the sense of the quality of the game. Mostly, I have to assume, that [the NFL] thought they were going to win and win much earlier in the negotiating process—June, July, August, something like that.
TC: Do you see a clear winner in the agreement?
PH: I actually haven’t seen enough of the terms to know and I’m not sure I’d trust what I’ve seen. The league clearly had to give a lot from its negotiating position, but I’m not sure the term ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ makes a lot of sense.
TC: Maybe if both sides think they lost then it’s a fair deal?
PH: Well, sometimes that’s a sign that everything is wrong. I know that’s a [former Indianapolis Colts general manager] Bill Polian line. But clearly there were a number of things that the league was asking for, where what they were really doing, is putting their relationships with the officials in line with what is current labor relations—defined benefit type plan kind of issues. But the other side is just money. And that’s a question of what are we worth, what do we bring the game? And you find that out by can you be replaced, how expensive is it, what does it do to the product, how bad is the disruption and how much do we miss our paychecks?
TC: Is there any question in your mind that the NFL’s hand was forced by the game-deciding call between Green Bay and Seattle on Monday Night Football?
PH: I have no doubt that it had a significant impact in encouraging them to do a deal. “Hand is forced” is certainly more than I know…. I don’t think there’s any question it played it role. That was a terrific embarrassment and one of the things that the NFL projects is that image of incredible confidence and being very well run, and this was a pretty big challenge to that.
TC: Do you think, especially with the salaries of other people such as the league’s commissioner, the officials showed they are worth the money during the lockout?
PH: Yes, exactly. Their value added to the game in terms of it moving quickly, creating a level of trust among the players, decisiveness, and then just sheer competence I think became clear. And then the question is how do you respond to that?