Once again this weekend, the guys holding the whistles at MLS games will either be replacements or scabs, and the term you prefer pretty much says everything one needs to know about where you stand on the issue. But however it is you view the lockout, one thing is becoming pretty clear: the Professional Soccer Referee Association is on pretty shaky ground in this fight.
(Graphic courtesy of Andy Mead)
This is true for several reasons, but the big one is simply this:
They're just not that good.
Ask any MLS fan what the weakest link in the league's program is - some would say the biggest thing holding back its progress - and the vast majority would tell you it's the officiating.
In fact, the whole concept of employing a bunch of guys full-time (which began in 2007 with the hiring of four referees) only came about because everybody concerned recognized how utterly dismal MLS officiating was and the solution they came up with was to bring the best of a sorry lot (Jair Marrufo, Ricardo Salazar, Baldomero Toledo and Terry Vaughn) in-house and work with them four or five days a week, hoping thereby to raise them to a more acceptable level.
In fairness we can't really say that it didn't work since it's impossible to know for certain how weak those four would be now if they hadn't had the benefit of full time study (Vaughn seems to be retired).
All we can say for certain is that it didn't turn any of them into World Class officials.
Point being, they were offered full time jobs not because MLS was so happy with their work but, being the best of a sorry lot, they thought full time employment would serve to raise their skills to a more professional level.
You can't call it an internship or a training program exactly, but neither can you say it was a recognition of or reward for their excellence.
Still, however those simple facts may sound, the intent here is not to slag on the PSRA or trash them as officials. Rather, the point is that in order for them to have the kind of leverage they seem to think they have, they'd need to be much better than they are.
For those of you who came in late, the Professional Referee Organization, headed by ex-England/FIFA referee Peter Walton, is ostensibly "an independent company responsible for administering professional referee programs in North America".
It is fully funded by MLS and USSF and although their offices are physically inside MLS HQ, technically the league itself does not operate it and is not party to the negotiations.
However, since its most important function is the hiring and assigning of referees for all professional level games in the US, MLS is their primary client.
They employ approximately 70 game officials, around 20 of whom are Referees, with the balance, obviously, being AR's.
And while you can make the case that the top tier guys - let's be generous and call it a third of the total - are not as horrible as most (Mark Geiger, for example), the bottom two thirds is more or less interchangeable with whoever the next 40 guys out there are.
So what does the PSRA want exactly?
We don't know for sure because they're not saying.
What we do know is this:
PRO (shorthand for MLS) says they are willing to compensate referees on a basis more or less equivalent to that of referees in top European leagues.
The PSRA, however, says that the European pay scale is irrelevant. They want to be paid on a par with officials in top American professional leagues, ie. the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
Which is ludicrous.
When MLS games routinely draw 70,000 people and a national television audience in the millions, no one will argue that they do not deserve a healthy share of the pie. Until then, asking to be paid the way a league grossing in the billions every year pays their officials is a hard case to make.
(The irony is that the players always want to make the case that they should be paid on a level commensurate with their European counterparts, but when the league offers to pay officials on that basis, they reply they want to be paid like Americans.)
The officials are also complaining about not being compensated for the time they spend traveling, the amount of time they spend away from their families and the hours of training and study they put in.
As if all those guys sitting in cheesy airport lounges in Omaha or Atlanta or Cleveland at 10PM nursing a gin and tonic, watching Sportscenter while waiting for a connection that's four hours late are on the clock.
The problem boils down to this: MLS is at best a low-margin outfit and they've got a lot of people clamoring for more money, the players being primary among them.
Now if the referees were, overall, of a very high caliber, replacing them would be much more difficult for a league trying desperately to gain and maintain respect as a top-flight professional league.
What caused the NFL to cave in to their officials was that the difference in performance was so glaringly obvious that it embarrassed them. (I don't believe for a minute that, collectively, the owners gave a damn one way or the other).
Frankly, MLS referees have been so uniformly...well, "awful" comes to mind, that replacing them with OTHER awful officials isn't going to cause much of a stir.
Aside, however, from the fact that if you were as bad at your job as these guys are at theirs the last thing you'd do is march into the bosses' office and demand more money, they seem to be playing the cards that they do have in such a ham-fisted way that it's tough to gin up much sympathy for them.
For example, just before last weekend's games they posted a document which was so ill-conceived that they've moved the link off their front page.
Headed "MLS Scab Referee Details" it begins with the famous quote from Jack London:
The scab sells his birthright, country, his wife, his children and his fellowmen for an unfulfilled promise from his employer. Esau was a traitor to himself; Judas was a traitor to his God; Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country. A scab is a traitor to his God, his country, his family and his class.
Pretty powerful stuff.
Unfortunately, nobody at the PSRA seems to actually know who Jack London was, aside from a guy who wrote a book about a wolf or something, or have read the book where that quote is from.
For their benefit - I assume a high level of literacy from the reader - that paragraph is from The Iron Heel, a dystopian (not gonna help you) novel of fiction predicting a mass worldwide socialist uprising against an oligarchic capitalist tyranny.
London himself was a socialist, which is easy to say because, as a member and official of the Socialist Party USA, he ran for office several times on the Socialist party banner.
Others, like his friend George Orwell, simply called him a Marxist and London didn't disagree.
So even if you share London's worldview - which changed somewhat when he moved to California, started a ranch and spent the rest of his life complaining about how "lazy" his employees were - he's not the perfect reference to use when you're trying to sound reasonable.
Might as well quote Eugene Debs. Or Che.
The document then goes on to trash each replacement official by name, mostly damning them with the notation that the have "no MLS experience", as if that was the worst thing you could say about a guy.
It shouldn't be necessary to point out that Europe, SOuth America and the world as a whole is chock-a-block full of referees who "have no MLS experience" but who we'd take in a heartbeat over anyone the PSRA can send out there.
We could also point out that a good many of these guys are FIFA referees - theoretically higher in the World Officiating hierarchy than most of the guys they were replacing - and, in fact, the only "lower level" referee from last weekend was an NASL regular who called the DC/Crew match and made a tough PK call which Simon Borg analyzed on mlssoccer.com and agreed with.
Another complication for the PSRA boys is the fact that while they themselves are mostly full time salaried employees of PRO/MLS, the "scabs" aren't actually taking their jobs. They're simply working their games.
The replacements are, at best, part time fill ins. Nobody is giving Kevin Stott's paycheck to a FIFA ref from Jamaica or Puerto Rico (although I can think of worse ideas).
Still, all of that aside, the biggest mistake the union guys have made is the timing.
With the MLSPA CBA expiring on December 31, everybody expects a protracted, rancorous and ugly negotiation, which almost certainly will come down to the wire. A lot of people are predicting either a strike or a lockout.
So the league may very well feel that, by hanging tough against the referees, they're providing an object lesson for the players. Conversely, by quickly caving in to the officials MLS may feel that they're encouraging the players to stand firm.
Like the man says, labor actions are seldom about what they seem to be about.
And as noted, the officials' position in the overall scheme of things is not helped by the perception - unfair or not - that they're just not that competent.
Meanwhile, the games will go on, calls will be made and mistakes will happen. And sooner or later, a big, glaring one will change the result of an important match.
Unfortunately for the PSRA, as much as they will scream and shriek and tell us that it's because the "scabs" can't do the job, the most likely result is that everyone will say:
"An MLS match decided by a terrible call. What else is new?"