The role of the referee in professional sports is not just making sure play is monitored, penalties get called and the game has a sense of flow. It is to protect the integrity of the product and the safety of the participants. The NFL demonstrated starkly when it started the first four games of the 2012 season with scab—or in the parlance of our neoliberal times “replacement”—referees, that the game was simply not the game when you had untrained eyes in charge of the action. For reasons that beggar belief, Major League Soccer has decided to follow in the tragic trajectory of the NFL and start the season with scabs on the pitch.
The Professional Soccer Referees Association, otherwise known as the refs union, has been attempting to negotiate their first collective bargaining agreement in league history. The amount of money that separated the two parties is not vast, estimated between $440,000 and $1 million for the lifetime of the deal. The main financial issue was that in recent years, MLS mandated far more trainings for referees to improve the quality of officiating. The refs, however, were not compensated for the extra hours.
The greater issue, however, was political. It was the fact that the refs union refused to sign a no-strike pledge. As the MLS league negotiator Peter Walton said, “Since they will not give us a guarantee they will not go on strike immediately prior to our match we are left in a position where we must use replacement officials.”
Yes, you read that correctly. The response to the refs shockingly ungentlemanly refusal to sign a no-strike pledge, has been to lock them out. This contemptible, hypocritical move forced me to ask the question, what the hell is it about labor rights that so repulse people named Walton? No, Peter Walton, a former British referee, is not related to those Waltons but I did truly wonder if some ne’er-do-well billionaire Walmart nephew had taken to breaking unions as a sideline hobby.
As for the refs, they have decried the lockout as a “scorched-earth” tactic and vowed to press on. They point out that the lockout comes after the union had already filed unfair labor practice and labor intimidation complains with the National Labor Relations Board.
Meanwhile, however, we have the specter this weekend of games that could be a train-wreck waiting to happen.
I spoke with Kevin McNutt, the cohost on my radio show Edge of Sports and a basketball referee for over thirty years. He said to me, “Scab referees are not adequately trained or qualified to service the product at the professional level. Expect referee calls and interpretations to be inconsistent not only from game to game but half to half. Through this, a state of anarchy may ensue from players and coaches that could lead to the challenging of referee’s authority, increased injury to players and sloppy overall quality of play that will make fans and followers of the sport question the integrity of the games.”