Once NFL owners have lost Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), perhaps it's safe to say they've lost the nation.
After Walker's Green Bay Packers suffered a devastating loss on a controversial last-second play Monday night, the governor whom labor activists consider the most anti-union in the nation took to Twitter on Tuesday morning to call for an end to the lockout of the league's unionized referees.
Walker's brief plea echoed the tweets of thousands of other exasperated fans over the preceding weeks. "After catching a few hours of sleep, the #Packers game is still just as painful," he wrote. The governor, who last year championed a law that stripped most public-sector workers of their collective-bargaining rights, ended his tweet with the hashtag "#Returntherealrefs."
With time expiring in the Monday night matchup, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson hurled a "Hail Mary" that dropped into a scrum in the corner of the endzone; the officiating crew ruled it a catch by receiver Golden Tate, even though Tate was wrestling for the ball with the Packers' M.D. Jennings, who arguably had control. After roughly ten excruciating minutes of review, officials affirmed the call on the field. (This GIF captures the on-field confusion.)
"Don't ask me a question about the officials," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. "I've never seen anything like that in all my years in football."
The referees have been locked out since early June, when negotiations over a new contract between the National Football League Referees Association and the NFL broke down. Although there are many issues at play, the referees' union has said the main sticking point is pensions: The league wants to freeze the defined-benefit pension plans they've had since the 1970s and switch them to less-attractive 401k's.
A lockout is different from a strike -- the referees did not choose to stop working, they were forced to do so by management as a bargaining tactic.
"The key is the pension issue," Scott Green, the head of the referees' union, recently told HuffPost. "A lot of our guys have made life-career decisions based on assuming that pension would be there."
The NFL is an extremely profitable enterprise, raking in about $9 billion per year. The average team is valued at about $1.1 billion, according to Forbes. Still, league commissioner Roger Goodell recently told HuffPost that pensions are disappearing for American workers in general, and that most people don't enjoy what the referees have.
"About ten percent of the country has that," Goodell said of defined-benefit pensions. "Yours truly doesn't have that. It's something that doesn’t really exist anymore and that I think is going away steadily."
The referees' strongest bargaining chip is perhaps the weak officiating by the replacement referees. Even though the league has argued that game-calling would improve with each passing week, Monday night's debacle clearly calls that logic into question. As officials have managed to lose control of a number of games in past weeks, the players and their union have argued that the refereeing presents a clear workplace safety issue.
In addition to the unlikely support of Walker, the referees have had an ally in the NFL Player Association, which sent a letter to the league on Sunday urging the return of the unionized referees.
"As players, we see this game as more than the ‘product’ you reference at times," the players union wrote. "You cannot simply switch to a group of cheaper officials and fulfill your legal, moral, and duty obligations to us and our fans. You need to end the lockout and bring back the officials immediately."