A blown call shines light on the importance of collective bargaining rights, for the NFL and beyond

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Sports analogies are a mainstay for business – both reporting and motivational development. What is a company but a team, focused on scoring against the competition? Nations also compete against each other far more constantly than the hardware counts from the quadrennial Olympics. Business is a kind of sport, and as such some sense of “rules” applied “fairly” is the critical difference between an efficient market and exploitation.

That’s what makes the business of sports both fascinating and raw at the same time it is dreadfully dull. While completing the obvious connections, the business of running a professional team drains the passion from the moments that make the highlight shows and endless banter worth watching.

Which gets us to the NFL Referee’s lockout– about the most boring story in the world until one seriously blown call.

The short version is this. Seattle was down 12-7 to Green Bay with seconds left, and QB Russell Wilson lobbed a “Hail Mary” pass into the endzone to Golden Tate. The ball was grabbed by MD Jennings of the Packers for an apparent interception, but Tate was able to get a hand in on the ball on the way down. The ruling on the field was a “co-reception”, meaning both men had the ball, and such a situation counts as a reception for the offense. That meant touchdown Seattle, who thus won the game 14-12.

I have yet to find anyone who thinks this was the right call, and Packers fans in general are seething beyond words. How did this call happen? This was far from the first questionable ruling by “replacement” referees brought in to take the place of the locked-out refs whose collective bargaining contract ran out this summer. The NFL is playing hardball, er, two-minute drill on them and moving on without the regular zebras fans came to rely on.

Why does this matter? For one thing, about $200M changed hands in betting on the game as Seattle covered the spread with the call. For another, this makes the case for a “fair” game with rules evenly enforced in a way that is very hard to make in other matters involving unions and contract negotiations.

You have to wonder what might have happened to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recall election if this had happened just ahead of the vote.

Beyond just the game and the money and the cultural value of NFL football, there is a lesson here that will stick in people’s minds far more than a year of Occupy Wall Street has been able to muster. What happens when the skilled people we’ve come to rely on are pushed aside because of a disagreement over collective bargaining? What is the value of skill and experience? What, indeed, is the future of unions in today’s workplace?

Democrats were quick to capitalize on the obvious analogies, asking why people would want unqualified teachers or other public employees blowing things this badly. It’s not a strong analogy, but it is likely to stick better than more esoteric arguments ever have. In many ways, this goes to the nature of work itself today, when skill development (and related productivity) separates the work done in developed nations versus (much cheaper) developing nations.

What will come of this one blown call? If nothing else, the value of a fair game where the rules are enforced with great skill and attention to detail has been shoved under lights as bright as they were that Monday night in Seattle. While the analogies with other union contracts are obvious, the case against Wall Street is even easier to make with some time.

Once this sinks in, the case for smart, tough enforcement of rules that make a fair game will be obvious. It certainly is in Wisconsin tonight. The sports analogies that make for standard business reporting have a new and incredibly frustrating story that can be told over and over again.

Those who think they have a hand on the ball better watch it.