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Did politicians, courts have power to end NFL ref debacle?

September 26, 2012 by Scott Bomboy


Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have agreed on one topic: It’s time for the NFL referee lockout to end. But it looks like the president, Congress and local politicians were powerless in the dispute.

Update: the NFL and refs reached a deal late Wednesday night.

Image: Creative Commons photo of refs not connected to the current lockout!

This week, the Democratic and Republican candidates gave interviews, where they shared most football fans’ disgust with the rapidly deteriorating referee situation involving America’s most-popular sport.

If you don’t know, the National Football League was in a labor dispute with its regular game officials over compensation and work-performance evaluations. The NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell locked out the refs. Highly trained college referees declined to fill in for their fellow officials.

So the NFL was using refs from lower levels of football, including some from the Lingerie Football League.

On Monday night, the national contest between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers ended when the referees apparently misruled in at least three different ways on the game’s final play, giving Seattle a win.

The national debate was exacerbated on Tuesday, when the NFL admitted the refs were wrong, but the Seattle Seahawks would still get the win.

The Packers are the biggest thing going in Wisconsin, which is a swing state in this year’s general election, and within a matter of hours, President Obama and Governor Romney said the NFL needed to settle the referee situation ASAP.

“I’ve been saying for months we’ve got to get our refs back,” Obama said in New York. It’s worth noting that Obama is a huge Bears fan.

The White House then officially stated its position on the issue.

“It’s very distressing for every American football fan,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

Romney was on CNN and voiced his displeasure with the referee situation, and his concerns about running mate Paul Ryan, a die-hard Packers’ fan.

“I’d sure like to see some experienced referees with NFL experience come back onto the NFL playing fields,” Romney said.

Ryan managed to get a shot in on President Obama on Tuesday as he lamented the call.

“I mean give me a break. It’s time to get the real refs, and it reminds me of President Obama and the economy. If you can't get it right, it's time to get out,” he said.

But did the president or even Congress has the legal power to get the NFL and its referees back in business.?

Last week, President Obama told a radio station he can’t get involved in the situation.

"I can't get involved with it, but I'm just expressing my point of view as a sports fan," Obama said.

Congress has little direct power over the NFL. Football doesn’t enjoy the ant-trust protection that belongs to Major League Baseball, so Congress lacks leverage over the NFL and it can’t really hold hearings.

Somehow, baseball has survived several Supreme Court rulings to keep its valued Sherman Act exemption.

The NFL has tried to get some anti-trust protection in the past, but the Supreme Court turned down the request.

In 2010, the Supreme Court dealt a big legal defeat to the NFL, when it ruled against the league in a merchandising dispute.

In American Needle vs. the National Football League, the court unanimously ruled the NFL was subject to anti-trust lawsuits and it had no claims to an anti-trust exemption in cases involving its trademark rights.

But the NFL also has several major legal cases in the pipeline, including a collusion case and a big lawsuit from former players about concussions.

One politician, New Jersey’s Steve Sweeney, wants replacement refs banned in his state.

"Whether the sport is football, soccer or baseball, when referees don't know how to properly enforce the rules, there is a real chance for unnecessary and serious injury," said Sweeney.

One possible way the courts could get involved in the NFL ref battle were if the NFL Players’ Union decides to press the issue.

The football players can’t strike to protest the use of the replacement officials, because of their current labor agreement with the league.

But some experts say the union could have tried to prove the use of the replacement officials was making for a dangerous work environment, and that would be a collective bargaining agreement violation.

"We're a group of players that have an extremely short career, about three-and-a-half years on average, and we're an industry where our injury rate is 100 percent on the workplace” said union leader DeMaurice Smith, in a Wednesday interview with CBS.

“The referees on the field are the first responders for health and safety for a group of players where we know that virtually every player in the National Football League is going to be injured at work," he added.

And in a slap to the NFL, the Lingerie Football League said it won’t use some officials who are moonlighting with the NFL, because they don’t meet the Lingerie league's standards.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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