WHY THERE’S BIPARTISAN SUPPORT FOR THE REFS

September 25, 2012

Just a guess, but the football broadcasting establishment seems to be united in favor of the referees’ union in the current labor dispute.

Sports broadcasters generally work hard to keep everything free of ideology – adhering to the Michael Jordan maxim that there are consumers from both parties – but you can sometimes pick up a whiff of politics under the chatter. I doubt, for instance, that Al Michaels and Bob Costas are voting for the same presidential candidate.

But the complaints about the replacement refs -- which serves as a practical proxy for an announcer’s feeling about the referees’ union -- seem to come from broadcasters of every assumed ideological stripe. (When the broadcasters complain, it seems always to be about the League’s unwillingness to provide quality officiating, not some intransigence on the part of the union.) Liberals, of course, naturally lean towards the workers in a labor-management dispute – and no matter how little they resemble coal miners, the refs are the union guys in the this stand-off. While conservatives might normally side with management, refs are at their core authority figures; enforcers of the law. They are close cousins to those who call balls and strikes, in Chief Justice Robert’s famous formulation.

Of course, you could make the case that it’s so obvious the replacements aren’t up to the job that it trumps any political inclinations. But there are plenty of issues on which the facts seem indisputable, yet politics defines our view of them. It would be easy to see pension reform, which is at the heart of the actual negotiations, framing the issues for some more ideological commentators.

But this bipartisan backing probably won’t help the refs much. The support from broadcasters and others is mostly sentimental. Like me, even those who want them to win – and think the games are being diminished by a lack of on-field control and shaky calls – are not about to stop watching the NFL. That makes it much harder to translate that support for the union into something that settles the lock-out.

And with Wisconsin close in the presidential race, maybe it’s a good thing the refs dispute hasn’t become partisan – as of last night, it might swing the vote.

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