How We Made and Won the NFL Referee LockoutS

It takes remarkably few complaints about the NFL referee lockout to provoke a chiding comment about "bread and circuses." It's a novel insight, assuming your conversation occurs nearly 2,000 years ago in imperial Rome. But all too often it represents misplaced disengagement. And now, of course, it's over, which makes it even easier to dismiss—a hiccup of labor history remembered only by people who paint themselves blue and stand nearly naked outside in January.

There are many reasons to dislike the NFL or not take it seriously. Cheese as headdress. The para-fascistic worship of a monopoly company which runs on tribalist anger, uniforms, punishment and constant self-mythologizing. The Cleveland Browns. The unironic appropriation of war imagery and terminology. People who talk about their fantasy teams.

But the referee lockout wasn't one of those things, and writing off these last few weeks of fan outrage as the self-absorbed mewling of man-boys denied their toys is ivory tower horseshit. Because this was about labor, and this was about us.

So how did it happen? How did the people who own the NFL as a property commit it to a course of potential self-destruction for a second consecutive year? While there was a very Galtian element to the lockout—so-called Makers versus so-called Takers—it also relied on a public-opinion atmosphere increasingly intolerant of strikes. The American right has waged a very successful war against organized labor for forty years, and when you conquer the enemy, you get to divvy up the spoils. We have long been complicit in perpetuating the image of union members as fat, sweating Teamsters on break #4 by ten in the morning. We internalized the propaganda and broadcast it back to ownership. We gave them the playbook, and they would have been fools not to run it.

In this labor conflict, as in almost any other, ownership understood the following:

We Don't Give a Shit

Over a week ago, the teachers in one of the biggest cities in America went on strike, and unless you're a public policy/news/labor wonk, you might never have noticed, apart from maybe two friends changing their profile pictures on Facebook to a "Support the CTU!" sticker. FOX News demonized then dismissed it; CNN mentioned it in passing, and MSNBC squeaked isolated reluctant hot air about it—like a fart in church—because the soul-dead predator looking to crush teachers was Obama's former Chief of Staff.

Many of us don't care, because labor news isn't sexy, so we never hear about it. But we also feel no ties to labor's successes, despite taking advantage of them. The unions, progressives and socialists who created the weekend, child-labor laws, occupational-safety regulations and even the right to strike are dead. Having lived all our lives under labor's benefits, it's easy for many of us to internalize the decades-long right-wing talking point that "unions were once very critical, but we don't need them anymore." It's easy to believe that those rights fought for and won are enshrined as permanent.

Nurturing a public narrative about the inviolate, forevermore status of workers' rights only benefits ownership, because it guarantees that fewer people will see any value in being labor activists. If everything is permanently solved, then there is no more work to do. The usefulness of this kind of narrative becomes immediately apparent when someone like Newt Gingrich, says something about how child labor laws are very stupid, and he isn't immediately dismissed as the cruelest, most useless dumbfuck in the known universe. It becomes even more apparent when you read substantial documentation about how employers in the United States can coerce their employees into peeing on a schedule, refuse to let them pee at all, arrogate to themselves the right to videotape employees peeing, punish free associations outside of work and fight to prevent employees from knowing that their First, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Amendment rights are being violated. Amongst countless other injustices.

When most of America remains unaware of—or indifferent to—the fact that management can force someone to sit still and risk urinating all over themselves because they have an insurrectionary and unscheduled bladder, a multi-billion-dollar sports monolith is correct to assume that most people won't do the reading necessary to figure out who is in the right in any given labor dispute.

We Don't Like Strikers

For those of us who make it past indifference, it's awfully easy to move into outright disdain. This is something the NFL knows well, from watching Major League Baseball's 1994-5 strike, and from fan response to last year's NFL players' lockout—not to mention the shutdown of the NHL or last year's NBA lockout. It takes about a week for America to lose its sunny solidarity about a work stoppage and instead view strikers as the beginning and end of the problem—for a multitude of reasons.

Strikers are disruptive, and we tend to atavistically value the previous order because it offered that—order. Strikes are a bummer; they try to tell us that things we enjoyed or grew accustomed to were, in fact, unjust. We felt satisfied with something that was evidently a problem, which makes us feel accused. All those people with signs say that we were accomplices, because we didn't think anything was wrong before.

More importantly, we're familiar with strikers in a way that we're not familiar with ownership, and familiarity breeds contempt. We aren't big-time owners, and we don't hang out with them. We struggle to corporealize the opposition. Fog is ungraspable, we can't rail against it with the same ease with which we can rail against that asshole UPS guy, that foul-mouthed plumber, that union electrician who charged more and seemed to do less. More to the point, all of us have probably played baseball, football, basketball or hockey. Or worked a stock room or slung food. We understand those tasks more intimately than we understand the financial machinations of billionaires.

We are unfamiliar with big-time money, but we've all done some menial work. And when we turn on the TV, we see athletes, whose actions, attitudes, negligence, grace and ignominy have all made us feel something stupendous or miserable. We know one side, because one side is a part of us, either through fandom or through the ache of old bones. We know its every excuse because we experienced it truly or vicariously. Thus sympathy erodes during any protracted strike, because pride says we could endure and do better, capitalize more on the same circumstances. In professional sports, we know that this is just a game because we played the game, and these guys are ruining the lucky opportunity from which we'd wring more happiness if given the chance. We know how bizarre it is to make tens of millions of dollars to play a game, and we nurse a kind of intimate resentment, utterly forgetting and forgiving the shadowy, unreal people who earn hundreds of millions of dollars per year by sitting back, not playing the game at all, and simply owning it outright.

We Don't Think Anyone Has the Right to Strike

A labor issue is a labor issue is a labor issue, but few of us recognize that. We've become so adept at narcissistically magnifying our differences of prosperity, geography and profession that the definition of "who has the right to strike" is pretty much, "Us, because it's really necessary in our case, but nobody else's."

It would never occur to most of us to take a supermodels' strike seriously, because they're supermodels. But even a moment's empathy to consider their working conditions might prompt us to accept the right to use collective leverage to address, say, sexually and medically dehumanizing environments established by employers who collude to rig wages and job requirements. It's easy for us to see, in our jobs, how all the companies in our town miraculously manage to pay the same rates and deny the same benefits, while we callously tell strikers in another state that, if they don't like it, they should quit and apply elsewhere. Or move—as if they can afford to, or as if conditions would be better elsewhere.

At this point, it's almost impossible to get anybody to admit that some group can strike. As said, if they work for a private company, we think they should move on, that they should exercise their right to choose and not compel us to accept their choice. Their strike will only interrupt the flow of a private good that we may want, and a successful strike will only increase its cost—to us. And if they work in the public sector, forget about it: many of us don't believe they possess the right to strike at all. Their strike will only suspend vital state or local services, and a successful strike only increases our taxes. (Even the "liberal" media doesn't help, with outlets like Slate—which had just concluded a luxurious staff "retreat"—spending the week of the Chicago strike echoing the right-wing imagery of teachers holding your children's future hostage to take more of your money.)

We loathe the existence of public and private strikes as well as their outcomes, even as we profess our undying commitment to the vague right to strike. When it comes to labor's ability to redress grievances, we are no different from people who say that an abortion should be legal for a woman to get but criminal for a doctor to perform. It's very important for us to feel tolerant and virtuous for allowing technical rights to exist while also being spared the consequences of anyone exercising them.

'Psychic Benefits' and How We Assume Victims Are Already Spoiled

As Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch and Corey Robin point out, there are very few encumbrances on legal and illegal ownership abuses of workers in America. Yet, despite the privileges of legal and illegal coercion, a larger purse to sustain battles in court and the pleasures of unequal wealth distribution, again, the power and perquisites of ownership remain amorphous for a lot of us. What's clear, though, are the salaries, hours and benefits of workers whose experiences are like our own or whose status as employees connects more readily with who we are. As such, we too readily give in to resentment of "how good" someone on strike has it already, and resentfully gaze at the list of compensations he or she expects from ownership.

As said above, this is especially easy when it comes to athletes—whose jobs we feel we understand elementally, having played sports as children—who seem grandiosely compensated, while their aristocratic owners rake in orders of magnitude more money in a murky and alien environment. But there really is no end to our willingness to demonize the striker, to see him as a petulant child who hasn't the hardiness to bear up under our strain and craft better outcomes through sheer determination. And in any case, so many strikers forget the wonderful intangibles of their jobs.

Years ago, the American right started pimping a term called "psychic benefits." It's a catch-all term that bends at the pleasure of the disingenuous, overpaid shitsmear writing a position paper for the Heritage Foundation, but here's what it means: "You have a job that already rewards you for the feeling you get from performing it, so you require fewer rewards in terms of salary and benefits." In shorter terms: you're being paid by feeling "good," so we can pay you less.

This argument was created to try to end the argument that conservatives only look at the bottom line, while liberals feel mushy things about people. It beautifully split the difference. Here, conservatives said: "We will pay teachers less and save our bottom line, because teachers are already rewarded by being able to do something caring. And we love teachers and everyone. Let's eliminate funding for construction paper and pens in kindergarten and watch as kindergarten teachers pay for them out of their own pockets." It is a concept designed to screw people who care by using evidence of their caring as proof that they are already emotionally and spiritually wealthy. And it works.

If you watched that teacher's strike in Chicago or read any commentary about it, you heard the psychic compensation argument a dozen times. (Again, even from the pretty-pink-fleshed horroscape of Slate's cash-snuffling neoliberal hogs.) Those teachers already had it so good: they cared about children and got paid in caring about children. Why, if they wanted more money, it must be that they didn't really care about children! Those salaries were just extras that the City of Chicago paid out to people diving into Scrooge McDuck-sized vaults of emotional feel-good gold. When they asked for money, they were being cynical. By asking for air conditioning in a city where dozens of people die from heat exhaustion or asking for classrooms with fewer than 50 students or asking for textbooks or asking to be proportionally compensated for an increase in teaching hours, they acted like they were in it for something more than teaching.

So What Does This Have to Do with Those Referees?

Everything.

Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, mouthpiece for over a dozen billionaires, needed you not to care. He needed every trite snobbish handwaving about "an opiate for the masses," just as he needed everyone who said, "Fuck it, I just wanna watch some games." Every person outside the hardcore NFL audience who didn't care was another name he could cross off the list of challengers to a plutocratic multi-billion-dollar regime.

And if he couldn't have your boredom, he needed your hatred, to view strikers as a cordon of loud, irritating, shouting people standing between you and entertainment. He needed you to remember how good everything was last year and notice that the only thing that changed were these jerks. And, hey, these were greedy jerks, too. If they wanted more money, you'd probably have to spend more money on that NFL Sunday Ticket package next season. The NFL only has about nine billion dollars lying around, so those refs were gonna pick your pocket.

Goodell also needed you to think this was somehow illegal. In the vision of the Randian supermen he serves, there is a vast and legitimate number of jobs in this country about which decent Americans can support labor activism, and "NFL referee" is not one of those three. Like strikes in the public sector, this lockout only cost you by hurting your best friends, billionaire owners like the self-made men of the Giants and Steelers' multi-generational ownership—or Jerry Jones, who built a stadium with only the sweat of his brow, $325 million in public funding and a .5% sales tax, a 2% hotel occupancy tax and a 5% rental car tax in the city of Arlington. Goodell thought this was an original pitch. But when every industry since the invention of the strike has cried "buyer savings!" this appeal means nothing. Apparently every strike and every labor advance hurts everyone. And yet, the actual history of the middle of the 20th century exists, and it's probably why you, your father or your grandfather can engage in arguments about labor right now.

Goodell wanted you thinking about compensation. He wanted you to know how much those professional refs make, and he didn't want you to know about the days they spend rereading the rule book, watching tape, working on a game, then watching tape on that game, just like players. He wanted all the extraneous unpaid-for details stricken from the record. He just wanted the numbers alone, for you to look at and think, "I can do that job," with the same prejudicial sense of revenge that he hopes you'll bring to the next labor dispute, when you say, "Wide receiver? $15 million? I'd do it for five-hundred bucks a day!"

Context ruins rage. Lack of context makes you an asshole. The NFL needed you to function at Full Asshole. "These refs have jobs in real life AND get these salaries? SMASH!" They needed you to not think about those days with the rule book, the game tape, the doubt, the stomach-eating anxiety, the fact that a lot of those real-life jobs pay poorly too (public schoolteacher), that when the first whistle blows those jobs become the most thankless in the world.

Goodell had hoped to trade on "psychic compensation," that you adore the NFL so much that you'd take a pay cut from nothing just to be near it. That you think anyone who demands money to be on the field is CRAZY, because you'd PAY to be there. He's the latest huckster in two generations of benefit-slashing that banks on the idea that just being there should make people happy. He and ownership everywhere need you to believe that the real reward for work is work, so you will be paid with more of the same. He is nothing new, just another avatar of the oleaginous whore who can't quite articulate the aristocracy's proper and comprehensive contempt for its inconvenience.

We enabled that. We created them. We have been so long indifferent to and unconcerned by labor activism that they can prosecute a predatory and acquisitive war on anyone. They command so much money that opposition is usually little more than a spiritual affair. And what little opposition exists often blames the victims, claiming that they earn too much in the bottom line or in psychic-compensation opportunity. Or, like the 2005 transit worker's strike, it reduces the conflict to, "But MY commute!" Or it stands aside and says, "Not my fight, not this time." Standing up and trying to wrest an actual restitution from billionaire ownership almost seems doomed.

Except, this time, they caved. In a conflict that was never about the money, they lost. They fought only on principle—that never, under any circumstances, can they be compelled to compensate anyone, that salaries flow downward only on their sufferance. And this week, at least for a very little while, they lost even that. Because, for the first time in decades in this country, the overwhelming majority of citizens refused to be accomplices.