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The NFL’s Pact with the Devil

–  Albert Brooks to Holly Hunter in Broadcast News


color:black”>Packers vs. Seahawks 2012 Replacement Refs color:black”>The devil, labor impasse between the National Football League and the referees union. Replacement officials culled from teams typically assigned to Division II contests and arena football have been placed in a position of acting as final arbiters of an immensely intricate rule book in a contest between men of incredible size, speed, and will, with every call dissected by television talking heads and scrutinized by millions of fans. 

color:black”>The dispute comes down to money. And as a litigator friend from Texas once told me:

“I’ve never seen a pancake made so thin it still didn’t have two sides.”

color:black”>It is not my purpose here to opine on the merits of either side. Both sides have merits and each side is dug in. But only the NFL is dancing with the devil. And by “devil,” I don’t mean the referees union. I mean the dispute itself.

color:black”>ThisAlbert Brooks explained, looks like everyone else. You don’t know him just by looking. But he’s that guy that gets you to compromise…just a little. He gets you to walk away from the things you believe in just a touch. It is under his influence that you move away just a bit from the things that matter to you. Until one day you don’t recognize yourself anymore.

color:black”>This football season began with a labor dispute, in which the key issues all concern money, is moving the NFL away from those things it has identified as its core – player safety and respect for the game. Because of this dispute, the NFL feels compelled to allow a shift away from values. The dispute has compromised what the NFL has proclaimed itself to stand for. The NFL believes it is controlling this dispute. It is, in reality, the dispute that is controlling the NFL.

color:black”>Watching this spectacle, I can’t help but empathize with Roger Goodell and the NFL. Is it possible to have arrived at adulthood – particularly after having assumed a leadership role in business – without having at some point dug in past all reason? Hasn’t every leader experienced a time when logic dictates a retreat but you retrench anyway?

color:black”>Is it ego – the win-at-all-costs, I’m-right-you’re-wrong mentality that starves all hope of a reasoned solution? Maybe. But like most things, I doubt it’s that simple. I think the NFL is actually looking closely at the problem and examining each issue with the consideration it merits.

color:black”>The problem, I suspect, is that the actual talking points in the dispute between the NFL and the referees’ union have become irrelevant. This is no longer a problem to be resolved by examination of the individual sticking points. This is a 10,000 foot view problem. It is a situation in which the NFL has to back away from the minutia, place ego and even logic on hold, and grasp the total picture.

color:black”>The NFL, like so many businesses large and small before it, has found itself grappling with a dispute in which it wrongfully perceives the other party as the problem. The other party – the union in this case – is not the problem. It may have started out that way, but that’s no longer the case. The dispute is the problem. And as a trial lawyer, I can tell you that few things are harder for business people to understand than the fact that there sometimes comes a point where, for the larger good, who’s right no longer matters.

color:black”>That’s where the NFL finds itself today. The dispute is pulling the NFL away from those things it champions. It thinks it’s just grappling with a dispute. What it is actually doing is dancing with the devil. And the problem is you can’t see that thing a mile away. The devil, sometimes, looks like everybody else.