Whistle Blowers

     The hardest job I ever had was reffing a basketball tournament on the rez.
     It was probably the worst job I ever did, too.
     Now that the NFL lockout of the real officials is over, what was it all about?
     It was about a $10 billion industry pushing an inferior product on consumers – and not getting away with it.
     The referees won most of what they wanted. Their pay demands of $16 million come to 0.16 percent of the league’s $10 billion annual income: one-sixth of 1 percent of the NFL’s enormously fat meat pie.
     The league can make that up with five 30-second Super Bowl commercials.
     One analysis put the refs’ demands at $30 million over seven years, or 0.023 percent of the league’s revenue: one-fortieth of 1 percent of revenue.
     (The average salary of an NFL ref is about $150,000. There are fewer than 200 refs, so their total salaries come to less than $30 million – 0.3 percent of revenue. That’s less than quarterback Drew Brees will be paid this year.)
     The big issue for refs was their pension plan, which the owners are changing from defined benefit to defined contribution – the same change that’s been crammed down the throats of millions of U.S. workers. The refs managed to hold this off for four years.
     This is not just a football issue, and it’s not just an economic issue. It’s a problem that has recurred in U.S. industries, from autos to computers to journalism: the people at the top think they can get away forever with pushing inferior products.
     Not this time.
     Ford, General Motors and Chrysler got away with it for years, until Japan made better cars, and took away the U.S. companies’ sales and profit margins, fair and square. Finally, after years of debilitation, the U.S. companies made better cars.
     Microsoft still offers inferior products, buying up competitors and pushing products so bad it’s opened the door for thousands of independent programmers and tech companies who can do everything Microsoft does, better. Had IBM not made the worst business mistake ever, by giving Bill Gates rights to an operating system he didn’t even invent, Microsoft would be just a dot among the dotcoms today.
     Newspaper owners, forced by buyout sharks to keep their share prices from falling, have cut reporters, cut editors, courted advertisers, and we get the pathetic state of the industry today.
     Then the NFL owners offered us an inferior product. But the average NFL fan knows a lot more about football than computer-users know about programming, or the average commuter knows about internal combustion. So the substitute refs took a beating. But it wasn’t their fault.
     I’ve held down some fairly high-pressure jobs. Being a city editor at daily newspapers was so much fun I didn’t notice the pressure. But that pressure was nothing compared to calling a few basketball games on the rez.
     I missed call after call, and I knew it. But by the time I was ready to blow the whistle, the ball was going the other way. Basketball was king on the rez, and the crowd was intense. Indians, by and large, are more polite than white people, and no one got on my case – not the teams, nor the crowd. But I went home feeling like something a rat chewed. I was awful. And the pressure of a hoops tournament on the rez – let us face it – is not in the same galaxy as the pressure of calling an NFL game.
     But in a tiny way, I’ve been in the substitute refs’ situation. I think the first three games of this NFL season were a worse nightmare for the refs than they were for the fans. But I didn’t hear a single fan shouting: “Hey, Roger Goodell! Hey, Jerry Jones! Dan Rooney! Alex Spanos! You suck!”

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