The NFL Referee Lockout Shows How Congress Rigged the Game

Golden Tate of the Seattle Seahawks makes a catch in the end zone to defeat the Green Bay Packers on a controversial call by the replacement referees on Monday

Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images.

Taking cheap shots at the replacement referees was easy and fun, but it misses the point. It is time to focus on the deeper meaning of the NFL lockout initiated by the owners: It is the metaphorical equivalent for all that is wrong in the economy.

Extraordinarily wealthy team owners are squeezing the working guys, the locked-out refs, who not only get weekly abuse from fans but paychecks that barely register in the context of the salaries paid to players and executives.

The fight—over pay, pensions, and power—is perfectly representative of the redistribution of income that has occurred throughout our economy. Those at the top are doing better and better, while those in the middle see what had been basic expectations of a job—a pension and health care—disappear at the bargaining table. Leaving it there, the lockout could be viewed as an unfortunate but emblematic private dispute that should be resolved and that some sound judgment and reason could get across, pardon the phrase, the goal line.

But there is another dimension to the dispute that provides an altogether different metaphorical comparison.

A significant piece of the wealth that the NFL owners garner is a result of the enormous TV revenues they get—and those revenues are supported by a legislatively granted exemption from the antitrust laws that has been made applicable to sports leagues, primarily the NFL.

While its exemption is not as broad as baseball’s total exemption, the NFL has used its political muscle, the wealth of its owners, and the wholesome, all-American imagery of the sport itself to acquire an edge on the economic playing field via Congress.

By virtue of this advantage, the owners have made more money and eliminated competition, and hence they give us inferior games officiated by refs filling in for the real guys in pinstripes.

So maybe the right play here is to say to the NFL owners: OK, go ahead with your lockout, but say goodbye to the laws that you have bought to give yourself an edge.

Say goodbye to the fees you have extracted from consumers and TV viewers and play by the same rules the rest of us do in the real world (or at least are supposed to).

Simply put: NFL owners should have to compete on a level playing field.

By virtue of the referee lockout, the owners have shown how the game can be rigged—not just on the field by bad replacement refs but also in the halls of Congress. It is time to get real refs on the field and real competition in the economy.

Let’s send the replacement refs packing and flag the owners for illegal formation.