A Strike to End NFL's Official Nonsense

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Another week, another dozen blown calls. This is the new normal in the NFL.

The NFL changed its tone this week, calling out - and even fining - players and coaches for the incompetence of their replacement refs. A league that uses improperly screened, poorly trained replacement refs and then criticizes its employees when they dare complain has a problem with hubris.

This is why the NFL Players Association should hold its players out. A mid-season strike would be just the thing to fix the outsized ego of the league. Thanks to American labor laws, the players have this reasonable recourse.

The NFLPA is a union, and unions, in their most basic form, have enormous bargaining power because they are cartels. A union colludes to withhold a valuable commodity - labor - from a market, in this case the NFL.

But in this instance, the league is also a cartel. The owners collude to keep another valuable good - employment - from players. The league's bargaining power is greatly enhanced because every owner has an incentive to cooperate to produce maximum revenue. The more the owners collude, the more revenue they make, so long as demand for their product is consistently high (or what economists call "inelastic").

All cartels suffer from a systemic instability because there is always an incentive for a participant to break ranks and undercut the group's broader goals. Think of OPEC, the group that controls much of the world's oil supply. All of countries in OPEC can agree to sell oil for a high price, but if one country decides to sell its oil for just a little less, it would sell a lot more oil than any other cartel members.

The larger the cartel, the harder it is to get consensus since there are many more competing interests. The NFL, with its 32 members, has many fewer participants who can break ranks on any given issue than the players union, with its hundreds of members. This simple fact works in the league's favor, and it's why it can do things like locking out the referees.

The NFLPA can win the battle by forcing the owners to break ranks on the ref issue, exploiting the fundamental instability in the organization of the league. Ed Hochuli, for all his entertainment value, doesn't produce much revenue for the league, and as such, he and his ref colleagues can't cause disagreement among the owners. Tom Brady and Ray Lewis and Calvin Johnson produce enough revenue to make the owners uncomfortable if they start to withhold their services. If stars like Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford refuse to suit up, the owners will break ranks to get their players back to work, and the cartel power of the league will be broken.

And there's good reason the players should hold out. The ref situation constitutes what the U.S. government calls "an undue hazard to the health and safety of [an employee]." Accordingly, under the regulations of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the situation must be remedied to the satisfaction of a representative "selected by a trade union representing the worker." The NFLPA has the right to review the ref situation and refuse to work until it is fixed.

Indeed, the law protects unionized employees from reprisal in the event that a risk hinders their ability to work safely. The National Labor Relations Act, to which the NFL's collective bargaining agreement is subject, contains a provision regarding "abnormally dangerous conditions" and makes it clear that workers are under no obligation to work if their employers aren't competent enough to fix these dangers.

The sort of extracurricular hits, excessive jawing, risky tackles, and chippy play we've seen over the last three weeks certainly constitutes an abnormally dangerous condition and an undue hazard for these players who have already agreed to take risks on behalf of their employers. The referees in the NFL serve the same function as safety officers in factories and coal mines who ensure that everybody adheres to the same well-constructed rules. Those rules are put in place to protect workers and employers alike.

But under the NFL's CBA, players have even more incentive to strike. In the event that a ref blows a call that results in a serious injury - God forbid - the players aren't allowed to sue for negligence. They've agreed to play the game under the conditions the league sets forth. The owners bear little to no risk in this regard. Fortunately for the players, U.S. labor law is on their side.

Economics is on their side too. In the NFL, the total value of the league - revenue, entertainment, popularity, and so on - gets divided among a diverse set of interests - the owners, the players, the refs, the fans, the networks, and so on. Each side jockeys to get a larger share of that pie, but if any one side holds out, everyone else loses some of their value.

In the NFL, the refs represent too small a group to damage the league's piece of the pie too substantially. The fans are too legion to organize a boycott. The coaches and networks have never shown an ability to agree on anything. This leaves the players - a group large enough to do real damage to the bottom line and small enough to actually get a consensus.

And holding out may be the only thing to undermine the hubris of the NFL and break the owners' silence on the ref situation. It's unfortunate that the NFL, for all its safety-conscious rhetoric, would ignore some basic tenets of occupational safety law. But the law is on the side of the players, and it now falls to the players to leverage the law for their own safety.

The new normal can't be allowed to continue.

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