By Paul Gardner
It's not easy to see what MLS is gaining from its hard-line stance in the ongoing dispute with PSRA, the referees union.
As things stand, negotiations have ceased and the MLS season will start tomorrow with seven games that will feature what are termed “replacement” referees.
A lockout, says PSRA. PRO (the Professional Referees Organization), which employs the match officials, does not dispute that, but says it was forced into that position because PSRA rejected a short-term no strike/no lockout agreement that would have allowed negotiations to continue while this weekend’s games were played with PSRA officials.
PRO is an ostensibly independent body, but its offices are located within MLS headquarters, while MLS contributes heavily to its costs. There can be little doubt that the big decisions -- like this one on the referees -- are MLS decisions.
The dispute between the parties is essentially about money. According to PRO boss Peter Walton, “We have made a substantial proposal . . . and believe it is very fair and reasonable. Our proposal represents a significant increase above current compensation for referees and places them above the average for officials around the world. We are disappointed it has been rejected.”
The gap is $440,000. That is what PSRA wants, its “last and best” figure. According PSRA’s vice president Steve Taylor, PRO is insisting the gap is closer to $1 million, but he maintains that the $440,000 figure -- which is basically for game fees and salaries -- is the key one. If PRO accepts that, all the other stuff -- working conditions basically -- is to be negotiated.
As for Walton’s insistence that PRO’s offer would make MLS referees among the world’s best paid, Taylor replies that PSRA is comparing the pay to that of officials in other sports in the USA: “PRO’s comparisons are with soccer countries overseas. We don’t work there. We work in the USA and Canada.”
So the replacements (there are other terms that could be used to describe them) will take the field. Who are they? According to Walton, they are “a highly qualified pool of replacement officials all of whom have officiated at the professional level. The pool includes international FIFA officials who have moved here from overseas, former MLS officials and officials who have worked in other professional leagues in the U.S.”
Which raises a whole load of questions as to how qualified and how fit these guys can be. There is also a risk involved for any younger American referees involved, who may be jeopardizing their possible future membership of PSRA. Without that, they would be forfeiting a possible MLS career.
But the larger question mark is whether or not they will be up to the task in the eight games to be played this weekend.
Taylor puts the problem in dramatic terms: “To go this route is an awful decision by them (PRO). It could be a disaster this weekend. I hope the players don’t suffer for it, I hope there are no injuries as a result of unqualified people working these games.”
For PRO, there is a massive irony in this situation. PRO was formed to upgrade the standard of American refereeing that was supposedly poor -- a judgment that I never agreed with. We had, last year a full season of PRO-trained referees, which provided no discernible evidence of any improvement. PRO now finds itself, far from upgrading referees, in a situation where it is using “replacements” -- which must mean a lowering of standards. This is a lose-lose situation for PRO. Because if things go well this weekend, if PRO then hails the replacements ... then one might well ask why we need PRO when referees (described by Taylor as “unqualified”) can do the job as last-minute replacements.
But the lockout is no doubt a harbinger of things to come for MLS. Its days of operating on a limited budget, keeping expenses low, are coming to an end. Inevitably -- MLS, as Taylor points out -- is on the verge of a new TV contract, it is making money from new franchises ... but most prominently, its clubs, as the Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley deals show, are now beginning to spend big money. It is unreasonable to expect that the referees would not notice all that evidence of growing wealth.
And not just referees. MLS will shortly enter into discussions with the players over a new collective bargaining agreement. The spat with PSRA -- which has not turned out well so far -- is looking like a rehearsal for troublesome dealings with the players.
Negotiations between PRO and PSRA will continue after this weekend. But the atmosphere has been soured. Does PSRA feel it is now facing a hostile adversary? “It looks like it,” says Taylor.