Lessons for others in NFL referees' labor dispute

After three weeks of limping along with replacement referees, the wealthy owners of the National Football League finally made the right call in ending their lockout — and it sends an important message about business and labor dealings that goes beyond football.

In short, the NFL fell back on the old adage — too often ignored across many industries — that the customer is always right.

What a welcome move in a league better known for its steep ticket prices, seat license fees, and high-handed stadium policies that once even included a short-lived hoagie ban by the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

But the referee dispute went right to the heart of the NFL’s reputation as a class act, with college-level and other replacement officials only able to look the part in their black-striped jerseys. Their embarrassing lack of experience was on full display on national TV Monday night, when the Green Bay Packers and its legions of cheeseheads were force-fed a bitter defeat to the Seattle Seahawks due to a botched, last-minute endzone call.

Most professional sports lockouts — including the ongoing National Hockey League’s — mean the game never gets under way. The NFL owners’ problem was that, in trying to make do with replacements, it was painfully obvious they were trying to sell customers an inferior product.

The understandable public outcry represented a powerful form of consumer activism that, fortunately, got the attention of both the NFL owners and the referee union’s negotiators, who settled Wednesday night.


Are there lessons for other businesses in the pro-football referee labor dispute?

The lesson for all industries is that managers and employees alike need to stop short of harming products or services.

That’s easier to do in the big-bucks NFL than in some struggling business sectors facing a stubbornly weak economy. Still, the idea that customers can’t be fooled for long — certainly, not season ticket holders, or even armchair quarterbacks — should withstand any challenge.