NFL Marxists

Today, the NFL referees return to action in full-force, after three weeks of dreadful officiating by scabs dredged up from Division III colleges and the Lingerie League. Time then for a reflection on one of the more puzzling aspects of the whole mess: the starkly opposite public reactions to the Chicago Teachers Union strike and the NFL referee lockout.

Mainstream left-leaning media outlets (and for obvious reasons, right-wing media too), from the New York Times to the Washington Post, were pretty much unanimous in their disapproval of the CTU. Most commentators pointed out that Chicago teachers were already better paid compared to their counterparts in other cities, and that they were forcing students to miss school, doubly thwarting Rahm Emanuel’s admirable goal to increase school hours–the issue that started this strike in the first place.

On the other hand, virtually no one, from ESPN’s corporate campus, to the saltier confines of deadspin.com, seemed to have the NFL’s back. (Even union-busting Scott Walker took the refs’ side.) The main argument on that front was that the NFL, not the referees, were the “greedy” ones, as Steve Young put it. Referees, before the lockout began, earned double what Chicago teachers do, for officiating one game a week, four to six months a year. Equally, the refs were requesting to keep the same sort of defined-benefit pension plans that are increasingly being phased out elsewhere, to little popular outcry.

Why did so many of us take labor’s side in one debate but not in the other? It’s true that a teacher’s strike is a comparatively bigger deal–I’d rather have a ref miss a call than a kid miss a day of school. But don’t Chicago Public Schools bear some responsibility for that too? When it came to the NFL, nobody seemed to suggest the the referees were to blame for wanting pensions and retirement benefits.

A few likely, and justifiable, reasons for the divide: First, the NFL locked the refs out, while the teachers chose to go on strike. Second, the NFL is vastly more flush than Chicago Public Schools. Third, the teachers’ demands (30% raise, no merit pay) were somewhat extreme–especially with Chicago taxpayers were footing the bill. Finally, the NFL, with its ongoing player safety scandal, doesn’t have the rosiest public image.

Still, there’s some cognitive dissonance here that I think stems from a now widely-held belief, among liberals and conservatives both, that selfish teachers unions fight only for themselves, while reformers like Rahm Emanuel are the ones looking out for the kids. As Michelle Rhee put it in a recent op-ed,

It was frustrating to hear Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis say toward the end of the dispute that the strike would continue to see whether there is “anything else they can get.” But at least that was clear evidence that, for union leaders, this strike was never about what was best for kids.

Of course the strike was about teachers! It was a labor strike! The extension of Rhee’s argument is that teachers, like many firefighters and policemen, shouldn’t have the right to strike. Come on. Just because teachers are striking for better conditions doesn’t mean the entire profession is a greedy cabal conspiring to screw kids out of their education. Most teachers get into teaching because they believe they’re helping children. Talk to a couple teachers, or have Tony Danza try it out for a year, and you’ll probably find they’re not in it for themselves.

*This post has been revised to reflect the fact that the NFL, rather than the referees, were initially responsible for the work stoppage.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.