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To most fans of the NFL, the dispute between the NLF and the referee union is a bit annoying and somewhat incomprehensible. The union is asking for about $30 million over 7 years. The NFL brings in $9.5 billion each year. With all the blown calls and delays (which have to be costing networks money), it's bizarre that the dispute wouldn't have been settled already.

Except that the dispute isn't about the referee union and their pensions at all. Anyone who's taken an ADR class, or negotiated actual disputes, or just read the first three books of A Song of Fire and Ice knows that a business bringing in nearly $10 billion a year doesn't take a negotiating stance that isn't incredibly calculated and looking three steps ahead.

This dispute is merely precursor to the next negotiation between the NFL and the players, where a lot more money will be at stake. If the NFL caves against the refs, the players will take a harder position. On the other hand, holding out as calls get blown sends the message that if the players go on strike they won't get a speedy settlement. Instead, Roger Goodell might just bring in Arena and European league teams, quality of the game be damned. Not that he ever would, but he does need to set himself up as being that intractable so the players won't get it into their heads that they could possibly win some concessions at the negotiating table.


And that's why the players need to go on strike now. The longer the replacement ref fiasco continues, the more players will be convinced that Goodell really might cut off his nose to spite his face, weakening their bargaining position. What's worse, the longer this goes on the more Goodell himself becomes convinced of it.

People hate appearing and feeling like hypocrites. Right now the NFL's position on the replacement refs is still probably just a reasoned strategy, but at some point Goodell will internalize the position and it will become part of his personality that he doesn't give an inch, even if games get ruined and what's being asked for amounts to only 0.04% of the NFL's revenues.

The fact that people really hate thinking of themselves as hypocrites can be used by the players against Goodell though. Instead of complaining about bad calls, they need to say that the biggest problem is the replacement refs are putting players at increased risk of serious injuries. The NFL has been implementing new rules to protect players and cracking down on illegal hits, so framing the ref dispute as a safety issue forces Goodell to pick between the two narratives he's been constructing. Is he someone who thinks player safety is paramount, or is he a stonewall businessman? Since the safety issue has been all over the sport media, it's likely that narrative will win out. Appearing a hypocrite to yourself is bad, but appearing one to the world is worse.


This is the lesson lawyers ought to take away from the dispute between the NFL and the ref union. Negotiations are often as much about the deal on the table as they are about future deals and the emotional involvement of the parties. If you can figure out the other strategic elements at play and gain some control over the narrative the other party is constructing for themselves, you'll walk away with much better results.

Just consider trying to get money from a client who is reluctant to pay his bills. The future deals at issue are the fact that he could spend that money to take a nice vacation to Vegas. Not really much you can do about that, except to understand what the money actually means to the client. What you can control is that as soon as the bill comes, the client is slipping in to the common narrative that lawyers are all just assholes trying to scam money from you, and he's not going to be one of those suckers.

What are the other ideas you can plant in his head? That you were the only person who was able to help him in his time of need. That he made a deal and is the type of person who honors his promises. That yes, lawyers are indeed assholes trying to scam you, and there's nothing you can do about it; everyone else just grins and bears it, so no one will think less of you for not putting up a fight.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go talk to the office manager about possibly getting Coffee Mate instead of the off-brand creamer we've currently got in stock.

[More Lit Up from Lampshade, Esq.]

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