A few observations on the NFL “replacement ref” situation:
1. The locked-out refs hold a very weak bargaining position. Unlike the players, the refs possess no rare set of skills or endowments such as a 280 pound frame able to run a 4.7 40 yard dash. Yes, there are some specific skills, both individually and as a coordinated unit, that officials need in order to effectively manage an NFL game, and these skills take some time and training to attain to the level of the old refs. However, there are literally thousands if not millions of people capable of acquiring these skills in a relatively short time. At the end of the season, if the league were to stick with the replacements, will attendance or viewership figures be reduced any this season or future season? With replacement players, yes, with replacement officials, not likely. The old refs have to hope for some major, outcome-altering blunder near the end of a widely viewed game; that’s really the only leverage they have. Otherwise, at some point along the way, “replacement” refs slowly become simple “refs.”
2. For whatever reason, the mainstream media almost universally sides with “labor” in these sports strikes — maybe it’s the view of owners/league office as “the man” or maybe an attempt to gain credibility with their journalistic colleagues in “news.” Whatever the reason, one would think that the locked out refs never made blunders, never had coaches complain about calls, never need to sort things out … Even Ed Hochuli, reported to be among the top-graded refs, made the infamously bad “no fumble” call in a 2008 Chargers-Broncos game. The process of the job that requires application of a large set of rules to a fast-moving game embeds mistakes — it’s built in to the system. One could easily argue that the replacement refs are of incrementally lower quality, but to argue that they are inferior by a wide margin is based on a comparison to utopian refs that don’t exist.
3. What about all of the grousing and complaining by coaches and players in Week 2, isn’t that sufficient evidence of the bad job by replacements? That’s the view of Shutdown Corner’s Doug Farrar. To me, this is a classic case where although coaches/players are employees of owners, the compensation/motivation of coaches and owners are at odds — an “agency problem.” Coaches fixate solely on winning the game, while owners (or their surrogate, the Commissioner) looks at a broader picture. As a result, the coaches and players started treating replacement refs like substitute teachers — “hey, we can take advantage of these guys.” At the end of the weekend, my view was that the league had to adjust the incentives of coaches — send the message that both refs and the league office will take a much more hard line stance against bad behavior. I suggested Roger Goodell himself calling every head coach to spell out these incentives. Instead, the league office issued a warning. It will be interesting to see if coaches respond, or if the league will have to make the signal credible by bringing the hammer down on someone.