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A word of caution to the NFL Referees Association



The NFL Referees Association and its 121 members are enjoying unprecedented appreciation (video) and good will after agreeing to a new union contract and ending the league imposed lockout.  The fans, players, coaches, and media are looking forward to NFL-caliber officiating after three weeks of having replacement officials who tried, and failed, to call the games with the same skill level.  The NFL officials proved that they cannot be easily replaced, and the performance of the replacement officials got the NFL back to the bargaining table to negotiate in good faith.

The officials are only as good as their last call, and the boos will rain down on them soon enough.  But the officials can feel satisfaction that the NFL, the media, and the fans know that they are a vital part of the game and all have seen first hand what the games are like without competent officiating.

As the officials bask in this glow, they should take a lesson from Major League Baseball umpires and not follow the history of hubris that ultimately caused the umpire’s union to implode.

In 1979, the Major League Baseball Umpires Association voted to strike for better pay and benefits.  MLB hired amateurs to officiate the regular-season games which were marked by controversy.   Baseball executives caved in and the umpire’s union membership proved they were needed in order to have a well officiated game.

After the successful baseball strike, the umpire’s union, lead by bombastic attorney, Richie Phillips, opposed Major League Baseball at almost every turn, filed many grievances, went on strike in 1984, 1991, and 1995, and threatened several other work actions.  At every turn, MLB gave in to the umpire’s demands as players and owners didn’t relish having games called by amateurs.  The umpires, knowing they were indispensable to the game, grew in hubris until Phillips and his umpires were resented all over baseball.  As the 1999 season drew to a close, Phillips chose a disastrous negotiating tactic that backfired and caused the union to implode.

The NFLRA has proven to the whole football world that the NFL needs them in order to have a successful on-field product.  They can take great pride in that fact and maybe even (privately I hope) gloat over the fact that commissioner Roger Goodell had to compromise with them.  But please, do not be like the umpire’s union from 1999 or the good will you enjoy now will be but a memory.

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"