Few could have predicted the Green Bay Packers would lose on a bungled call by an NFL replacement official. And few could have predicted the fans’, players’, and coaches’ increasing uproar due to consistently inconsistent calls from those replacement officials.
In fact, I strongly suspect the NFL owners were not only surprised at the overwhelmingly negative impact that flowed from their locking out their officials – but that their weakening leverage as a result contributed to their getting a worse deal than they might have achieved earlier.
So what happened and how can we learn from it?
To start, the NFL’s leverage vis-à-vis its regular officials drove this negotiation from beginning to end. As the season drew near, the NFL must have believed it had strong leverage and could force its regular officials into significant concessions by locking them out and using replacement officials.
As regular readers of this column know, leverage is primarily based on a party’s alternative to a deal with the other party, or its Plan B. In the NFL’s case, it must have initially evaluated its Plan B – the lockout – as better than acceding to its regular officials’ last demands prior to the season’s start.
But here’s the rub – the NFL’s leverage got weaker each week the lockout lasted. And the NFL was acutely aware of this as the media, coaches, and fans incessantly focused on every questionable call each week – highlighting the lockout’s increasingly negative impact on the NFL and the integrity of the game.
We can learn three lessons from this.
One, leverage is fluid and can quickly change. Each disputed call increased the pressure on the NFL to get a deal done. This culminated in the blown call that cost the Packers a game.
The NFL’s leverage thus weakened and the locked out officials’ leverage strengthened each week. And leverage was strongly trending in favor of the officials with no bottom in sight for the NFL.
It’s thus no coincidence the deal happened a few days after the replacement officials’ biggest blown call. As New York Giants’ co-owner John Mara noted after the Packers’ loss, “I think the events of Monday night may have accelerated the process.” What happened?
The NFL recognized its weak and weakening leverage and became desperate to get a deal done. Two days later, they had a deal.
Two, no one has a crystal ball and can predict everything that can impact leverage.
But we can comprehensively plan and prepare for negotiations, including taking concrete steps to strengthen our Plan Bs and lessening the likelihood that unpredictable events will crater it. Coaches and teams prepare extensive game plans. Here, the NFL should have developed a better one.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But it certainly seems like the NFL didn’t sufficiently plan for the lockout. The NFL’s most glaring error, in addition to not anticipating so many bad calls, occurred when ESPN learned a replacement official scheduled for the New Orleans-Carolina game was a huge New Orleans fan. This bias was there for all to see on that official’s Facebook page – but the NFL missed it.
Finally, we can learn from the NFL’s ultimate recognition of its weakened leverage and its lightning fast move to get a deal before it got even worse. Sometimes we just have to face our weak leverage and deal with it. The NFL did just this.
Unfortunately, the Packers paid the price. It remains to be seen how much it will cost them.
Published October 7, 2012 The Arizona Republic