CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
We turn now to the National Football League. We're three weeks into the season and that means a lot of amazing plays, even more amazing catches, but story number one by far has been the referees. The NFL locked out its regular refs in a labor dispute and so replacement officials have been on the field and they're taking heat off the field for some blown calls.
The whole situation may have reached a boiling point last night when the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Green Bay Packers with a disputed game winning touchdown. It was something even former President Bill Clinton talked about this morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MORNING JOE")
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I would not have called that last play the way they did in the Seattle-Green Bay game last night. I think, you know, the Packers will wake up this morning and just sort of shake their head and say, well, we should have won by two touchdowns instead of one and go on. That's all they can do.
HEADLEE: So we have great advice now, not from a president, but the still very valid perspective of Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine. Welcome back to the program.
DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, great to be here. Thank you.
HEADLEE: So I'm sure you've seen that photo that's everywhere of the two refs in the end zone. One ref's calling a touchdown. The other seems to be calling an interception. How bad was this call?
ZIRIN: It was a farce. It was a call that was so bad, it crystallized what a lot of people have been worried about through the first three weeks of the season, which was that a blown call wouldn't just interrupt the flow of a game - and there have been a lot of blown calls over the first three weeks - but that it would actually affect the deciding play of a game.
This is the first time that's happened and what it crystallized for fans and even formerly friendly broadcasters and sports radio hosts is that the NFL is currently sacrificing its integrity. It's sacrificing an integrity that's made it the most successful sports league arguably in the history of humankind, and it is sacrificing it right now over what amounts to tens of thousands of dollars. And that, people think, is absolutely ridiculous. It would be like if Coca Cola said, you know what? We don't need to pay to carbonate this soda. People will drink it, anyway, even if it's flat. That's the level of arrogance coming from the National Football League.
HEADLEE: Well, coaches, for the most part, have been kind of holding their tongues - up until Bill Belichick, the Patriots coach, got in a bit of trouble. He grabbed a ref at the end of the game.
HEADLEE: He thought there were a number of bad calls in there and the players have been complaining, as well. The position of the Players Association is that this is a bad situation. What kind of pressure is it going to take to get the NFL to move?
ZIRIN: That's a great question. You see, a lot of people are doing things like circulating petitions on Twitter, talking about fan boycotts. The problem with that approach is that the NFL already has its money. The NFL makes most of its money through the public subsidies of stadiums, as well as from television money, which has already been paid. The amount that fans actually put in the pockets of NFL owners is actually very small, percentagewise.
The power that can really be projected here that could change this thing would be - it wouldn't take a million fans. It wouldn't take 10 million fans. It would take two players on each NFL team, the offensive and defensive captain; if they stepped up and said, our health and safety is at risk with these amateurs on the field. We are not going to take the field. Our team will not take the field until there is a settlement. If they did that, this would end faster than an RG3 40-yard dash.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and I'm speaking with Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine, talking about replacement referees in the NFL. You're talking about one million or 10 million fans, but how many millions of dollars is at dispute here in this labor contract dispute?
ZIRIN: Not much at all. If you actually look at the numbers, you can see that this is not economic. This is ideological. This is about NFL owners not wanting to pay pensions to the referees. They don't think they deserve pensions. They see them as part-time workers. They want them to have 401Ks. That's the center of the dispute.
But if they just paid the referees what the referees have had in the past, you're talking about - this is a nonpartisan average - $62,000 per team per week. That's what it would cost. I mean, that's not even what NFL teams make for parking in a given Sunday. So you're talking about a very small amount of money at play here and yet the NFL owners have adopted a very hard line. And you have to see it as connected to the lockouts that have taken place all in the last year. In the NHL - has a lockout right now. Last year, it was the NBA and the NFL, again, had a lockout.
And, in each of these four lockouts, it's been the same law firm hired by the owners, the same lead negotiators hired by the owners. It is a conscious strategy from point one.
HEADLEE: So, I mean, but this really is overshadowing talk about the games themselves.
HEADLEE: Even professional athletes in other sports - I'm sure you've seen their comments. LeBron James says the game was stolen from the Packers. This is my favorite. It was from Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls. He said, Ashton Kutcher just walked into the Green Bay locker room and told them they'd been punked. So exactly how damaging is this?
ZIRIN: Oh, it's very damaging. You know how damaging it is? I'll give you my favorite comment. My favorite comment was a call to return the union refs from Governor Scott Walker from Wisconsin.
ZIRIN: Now, agree or disagree with Governor Scott Walker, but he is the symbol of anti-union politics in our political world right now with his battle against the public sector unions in Wisconsin. But guess what Scott Walker also is? He's a big Green Bay Packers fan.
HEADLEE: Of course he is.
ZIRIN: And so even he was on Twitter last night, calling for the return of the union refs. That shows you we're at a real tipping point here. The question to me is a question of isolation. How isolated are the NFL owners? How isolated is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell? Are they so isolated that they don't see that people are really turning against their product, a product that took decades to build?
HEADLEE: Well, answer your question for me. How isolated are they?
ZIRIN: I think they're extremely isolated. Otherwise, it never would have gotten to this point. I mean, the NFL - owning an NFL team is like having a license to print money. It is so lucrative at this point in their history. Economic projections show that a league that generates $9.3 billion a year could be looking at yearly revenue of $20 or $30 billion over the next 10, 20 years.
HEADLEE: Holy cow.
ZIRIN: More women in the United States watch the Super Bowl than watch the Oscars. It is the American - it's the closest thing, I think, to a unifying cultural force in the United States - is the National Football League, and they are messing with the core of its integrity right now.
HEADLEE: David Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine, host of Sirius XM Radio's "Edge of Sports Radio." He joined us in our Washington studios. Dave Zirin, thanks so much.
ZIRIN: My privilege. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.