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NFL, referees offer an example of how not to do it

After 3 1/2 months, the NFL's lockout of referees has finally ended. In retrospect, many are asking, "Was that trip really necessary?" And now, did the solutions that the new contract contains represent nearly 17 weeks of concentrated problem solving? Does the result represent a significant benefit to the league, the referees, the owners, the fans and the players?

Perhaps most importantly, the league and the association should be asking, "Were these issues truly best resolved at the bargaining table?" Typically, bargaining of this type assumes that the two parties were unable to find a mutually beneficial resolution and instead resorted to arm wrestling by committee to reach a decision.

Not every issue is best resolved by tug-of-war activity. Parties willing to do the work are able to reach mutually beneficial solutions on most of their issues. Though apparently not popular in political circles of late, collaboration is alive and well in workplaces where management and union leaders commit to starting the discussion by stating their interests rather than their demands.

Unfortunately, in this case the union and the league chose the more combative route, though neither side had enough leverage to force the other to resolve the issue. History teaches us that resolution of disputes by combative means rarely occurs until the collateral damage creates substantial leverage.

"Collateral damage" in the world of lockouts and strikes normally translates to people and organizations getting hurt. Fortunately, an agreement appears to have been reached before the NFL suffered the kind of enormous loss of fan support that Major League Baseball's player strike in 1994 wrought.

That does not mean the NFL escaped damage-free. At the very least, the league has acquired a black eye in the minds of many. Black eyes are not fatal, however; damage to the bodies of individual players is. During each week of replacement referee oversight, we witnessed growing evidence that the game was too poorly officiated to contain its normal arc toward becoming increasingly physical. Injuries resulted.

Some years ago, the NFL showed the leadership required to reach a difficult and important salary cap decision – a gutsy decision that has enabled the league to have exciting, competitive teams in a variety of communities.

By contrast, Major League Baseball's inability to collaboratively reach a similar plan continues to feed a ridiculously uneven field of teams.

Let's hope that in the aftermath of this dispute, the league and its unions decide to return to that same kind of collaborative problem solving in future negotiations – and that the National Hockey League and its players association are watching and learning.


Robert Hughes is president of Overland Resource Group, which counsels and trains joint labor and management clients.