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NFL lockout hits pay dirt with employment lessons

By Michael P. Maslanka

Editor’s note: Fall is here, and for a lot of die-hard fans, that means just one thing — it’s football season. But the first three weeks of this football season were marred by a referee lockout that meant a lot of bad calls and missed penalties by the replacements. Many commentators also pointed out that the number of brutal, illegal hits seemed to be higher than normal, perhaps because players believed they could get away with more with the replacement referees.

The NFL and referees reached an agreement late Wednesday night but not before weeks of missed calls and dangerous illegal hits had the Internet buzzing with fans fed up and disappointed with the NFL owners and their perceived greed in the matter. National Public Radio’s Mike Pesca estimates that the dispute was over about $10 million in pay and pensions the referees want for their part in the success of the NFL, which is expected to earn $10 billion next year. Texas attorney, Texas Employment Law Letter editor, and Tony Romo fan Michael P. Maslanka comments on the NFL strike and what employers can learn from this labor dispute being played out on a national stage.

Are you ready for some football?
There is one caveat I want to make clear: The replacement refs did their best under tough circumstances. Nothing here is meant as a criticism of them. Now, let’s talk about the interception by one team that was ruled a touchdown for the other. That’s right, the end of the game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks.

For those who missed it, here’s a summary: It’s the next-to-last play of the game, and the Seahawks quarterback throws a Hail Mary pass into the end zone. A Packers player intercepts the ball, and a Seahawks player tries unsuccessfully to wrest control. One ref calls it the right way (a touchback for the Packers), and the other says the Seahawks got the touchdown. The touchdown ruling is affirmed after a review. Everyone, including President Barack Obama, chimed in on Tuesday.

What are the workplace lessons?
First off, my mom taught me that if you say something is important, then you should treat it as important. How often do we hear employers say that employees are their most valuable asset? That the safety of their employees is of paramount importance? That the customer is number one?

If the NFL and the teams in the league really believed that, they would have resolved the contract dispute before the season started and brought back the regular refs to avoid the bad game-changing calls and dangerous illegal hits. Tony Romo suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit on Sunday. I saw his neck wobble one way and then back. No penalty was called. Not bringing the regular refs back demeans the players and insults the fans.

I won’t argue the merits of the owners’ bargaining positions. But what I will argue is that like any business, they should have done a cost-benefit analysis. (My local sports talk station reported that the refs’ pension demands would cost $100,000 per team.)

Was holding on to their continued bargaining position providing the owners a return on investment, or did it mar their brand image? What is more important? Then again, maybe I am assuming facts not in evidence — namely, that the owners care about their players and their fans. I hope they, as well as other employers, truly do. If not, then we need to have a different discussion.

Making the right call under pressure
Let’s drill down to the play itself. We are called on to make time-pressured decisions (albeit not in front of a national TV audience or 70,000 screaming Seahawks fans). But time-pressured decisions invariably lead to bad decisions. “We must get these widgets out today, quality control be damned.” Or “We must decide now whether to fire Joe.” Or “The Challenger must be launched today. The entire world is watching.”

President Abraham Lincoln was right: Nothing valuable is lost by taking time. We do not talk with or ask questions of one another enough. The refs could have huddled up and asked each other, “What did you see? Did the Seahawk player commit offensive interference? What exactly is the rule on simultaneous control of the ball?” I’m not talking about having a seminar, but a candid dialogue is important. When in doubt, talk.

So what else do you do? Remember, you aren’t in control of what someone else does, but you are 100 percent in control of your reaction to it. Believe that. That’s as true whether it’s a one-on-one talk between manager and employee or when being yelled at by the crowd and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. But it is hard. You must discipline your mind. (By the way, Carroll should have been told to get off the field, return to the sidelines, and get out of the official’s face.)

Own up to your mistakes
We all make mistakes. That’s OK. But not owning up to them is not OK. The Seahawks-Packers play underwent review. As I understand it, a replay official who is safe and sound in a booth above the field is the one who decides whether to affirm the call made on the field. Why he did not reverse the call, we do not know (the NFL offered an explanation on Tuesday that many fans disagree with).

Some advice: Believe your eyes. As Oprah Winfrey says, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” This is often true in the workplace, where we make excuses for a person’s bad behavior. The same with the play: The ref in the booth saw clear and unmistakable proof that the ruling on the field couldn’t have been more wrong. But he rejected it.

Be a good winner
When life gives you a chance to be gracious, take it. Carroll, the Seahawks’ rookie quarterback, and the guy who committed pass interference and then “caught” the ball acted like jerks, claiming the refs got it 100 percent right, complete with smirks. They know better.

How about this instead? “Naturally, we accept the call that was made. We respect the Packers’ belief that it should have gone the other way. This call takes nothing away from a tenacious and talented team.” Karma — it comes around.

Michael P. Maslanka is a partner with Constangy Brooks & Smith, LLP, in Dallas, Texas. You can read more from Maslanka on his blog Work Matters and in Texas Employment Law Letter. He may be contacted at mmaslanka@constangy.com.