By Tom Baxter
Last week two lockouts came to an end. While there was a sense of relief in both cases, the two episodes ended very differently.
The National Football League officials’ lockout concluded with what must be the first standing ovation in the history of professional sports saluting not the players but the refs, as the completely vindicated regular NFL officials took the field for last Thursday night’s Cleveland Browns-Baltimore Ravens game.
The lovefest continued through the weekend, with the television announcers in the Atlanta Falcons-Carolina Panthers game remarking on every good call as if it were a Matt Ryan pass. Not even an eerie repeat of fortunes for the Green Bay Packers, victims of the botched call which was the last straw in the league’s attempt to stiff the regular officials, could dampen the national sense of relief that adults were again in charge of the playing field. This time the Packers won anyway, despite the bad call.
The football officials had the great advantage in this struggle of being completely unappreciated by the public until precisely when their skills were required before a national audience. It’s a pity that in the lockout of the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra there was nothing similar to the Monday night call that denied the Packers a victory, some grand SQUOWNK moment in the middle of a great work that could have underscored the true implications of their absence.
There were a lot of sour notes in this lockout, but none of them were ever heard on stage. The musicians, who had already agreed to $4 million in cuts over two years and gone for a month without pay or medical benefits, gave in to the management demand for $5.2 million in cuts over the same period. Five top managers accepted salary cuts, a token concession to the players’ complaint that the administrative side of the ASO operation has grown bloated and overpaid. The orchestra will be reduced from 95 players to 88, while the administrative staff will remain at 74.
“When the ASO was last the size and season length it is being reduced to now, the administration staff was smaller than 15. The musicians are not, and have never been, the cause of financial problems at the ASO, and in light of these agonizing cuts cannot be cited as such in the future,” the musicians’ union said in a press release announcing its surrender in the month-long battle.
Though they ended differently, the question in the case of both the NFL officials and the ASO musicians is why anyone thought a lockout was a good idea in the first place. The NFL chose to take on the officials at a time when it faces much more serious long-term concerns, and lost in humiliating fashion. The officials didn’t get everything, but they got an eight-year contract, a healthy raise and probably the best pension deal they could have made. The league got a black eye.
The ASO management won its fight with the symphony players, but at a cost of well over $1.2 million in community good will. If the lockout causes an exodus of key players and a general decline in the quality of the orchestra, the costs will rise much higher. In neither case was there enough at stake to justify the risks involved in precipitating a public dispute.
Both lockouts could be looked on as part of a larger, ongoing war which is no longer simply between management and labor, but increasingly between administration and expertise. It is in no respect a one-sided conflict. Expertise, whether on a shop floor or a television newsroom, is essential to the quality of a product. On the other hand, the rapidly changing economy has made some skills outmoded and eroded the value of others. A worsening economic climate can create resentment of experts and elites, as some of the blog entries related to the symphony lockout illustrate.
But football games and orchestra concerts are about expertise, and that’s what the management in both these situations seems to have gotten fundamentally wrong. The NFL executives reasoned that there were a few bad calls every Sunday, so the fans wouldn’t be agitated over a few more. The ASO management was willing to cancel the October portion of its season if the players hadn’t backed down.
In both cases, that was gambling against the public’s interest in the quality of their product, which in the long run can’t be a wise business strategy.