I want to describe for you in some detail a call made by “referee” Don King during last week’s Patriots-Giants preseason finale. King is one of the NFL’s replacement referees, which makes him a little like a traffic-cop mime in Pyongyang, there only to wear a clean uniform and keep up the charade of rigidly maintained order. As a scab, Don King is not to be confused with the guy last seen bombing out of the Lingerie Football League. Nor is he the guy whose day job is reffing six-man football games. In his other life, King is a bankruptcy lawyer who has represented the likes of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. (Solidarity! During billable hours!) By all appearances he is one of the lesser clowns in the clown car—or at least he was until last week, when he became the derp face of NFL replacement refereeing.
The Giants have just punted the Patriots back to their own 18. The clock reads 6:08 in the second quarter. King turns to address the crowd, raising his arms as if to signal a penalty. Then he drops them. He opens his mouth and closes his eyes and freezes, his lips forming a soundless “O.” An eternity passes. He looks like the world’s largest Vienna Choir Boy. “We have fouls by both teams,” King says at last. “During the kick.”
“We have”—he brings his hands to his chest—“illegal shift”—he spreads his arms—“by the”—he gestures with his left arm toward the Giants’ end zone—“kicking team.” OK, so far, so good. Then King gestures tentatively toward the Patriots’ end zone. “After the kick.” He looks to his left. You can hear another official calling out to him: “Both on the kicking team, both on the kicking team.” King nods a little. Stares into the distance. Another eternity passes. Roses bloom and wither. Mountains crumble into the sea. The crowd starts lowing. You know the sound. It’s a sound you hear on amateur night at the Apollo right before the guy brings out the shepherd’s crook.
We pause here to note that King is on the field in the first place because the NFL locked out the regular refs in June in a contract dispute. (Andrew Brandt has a good primer.) For all the abuse the ordinary referees take from fans, they have unmatched experience officiating the fast, violent, and baroquely rule-bound action of an NFL game. The league decided it was worth sacrificing this to play hardball with less than 1 percent of its annual revenue.
Hence: Don King. “Then after the kick we have a 15-yard penalty,” he announces at last. He signals a personal foul, pointing first with his right hand toward the Patriots’ end zone, then with his left toward the Giants’. “Chose to re-kick, five-yard penalty.”
Exit, stage left. Oh, but he’s not done. A whistle blows again as the Giants prepare to re-kick. King turns his mic back on.
“Correction on the reporting of the foul,” King says, looking like someone who knows he’s about to get eaten. “Both teams were on the-both …” whereupon he makes a sound that I can only render as “ahhhp.” He closes his eyes again. The fans are all over him now. The crowd is both heckling and enjoying its own heckling, and King is still on stage at the Apollo, murdering Otis Redding. “Both fouls were on the kicking team,” he says at last, a determined little jut of the head signaling that our performance is at an end. “Five-yard penalty.”
Don King is an NFL referee. Only in America.
Lest you be tempted to feel sorry for him, please remember that King and his colleagues—the six-a-side ref, the guy whose last big call probably involved someone wearing pasties, the fellow who went about catching a football the other day as if someone had tossed him a dead cat—will be working regular-season NFL games this week: real games, played at real speed, with real hamstrings and real betting handles at stake. This is crazy. This is a scandal. They will be working games this week because, for the second year in a row, Roger Goodell’s NFL decided to spend its offseason shoving some workers up against a wall, mostly because it could.
ESPN.com’s Jeff MacGregor, in a great column that might’ve been a rousing call to arms had it not been buried somewhere next to the Bassmaster standings, writes that the referee lockout is “the least-loved labor struggle in sports history.” And damned if he isn’t right.
The public strategy of the refs union is to draw the very short line between the quality of officiating and the health of the players, which is smart, even if Goodell long ago exhausted everyone’s “Aha! Hypocrisy!” reserves on the subject of player safety. But no one’s running to the barricades on the refs’ behalf now; no one’s going to throw any bricks when they get euchred out of their pension program, either. (That’s right: We’re talking about honest-to-God pensions, not 401(k)s. Just the phrase “defined-benefit pension” seems like something out of another, hardier America. Put that in your John Facenda voiceover.) This is simply too good a time to be a fan, and the stakes are way too low—less than 1 percent of its total revenue, remember—for anyone to care too deeply about the plight of the zebras.
The most distressing thing about it is that we’ve evidently reached a point where a lockout is considered a naturally occurring phenomenon—a regrettable but unavoidable consequence of doing business, rather than an act of employer militancy. “Lockouts were once so rare they were almost unheard of,” Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, told the New York Times earlier this year. The broader cultural trend away from this consensus was set in motion 30 years ago. Now, in the past three years alone, we’ve had two NFL lockouts and two NBA lockouts, with the NHL preparing a cute little ice-themed lockout of its own. Management views labor negotiations as something to be conducted primarily from behind a padlocked door. According to a study by Bloomberg BNA, “employers were much more likely to lock out workers in 2011 than in any other year since we started keeping track of work stoppages two decades ago.”
It’s only going to get worse. The sports ownership class more and more comprises people for whom a team is a tiny piece of a massive wealth-generating portfolio, for whom the referees and their pensions represent just another inefficiency in a small corner of the empire. Jerry Jones and Stephen Ross and their cohort are locking out the refs simply because they can. Ahhhp.