6 Other Pro Sports Labor Disputes Involving Officials and Their Replacements

Our long national nightmare is over.

Late last night the NFL agreed on an eight-year deal with the NFL Referees Association. The league’s referees will return to the field for tonight’s Browns-Ravens game.

We may one day tell our grandchildren about the time replacement refs accidentally gave Jim Harbaugh two extra time outs or about the phantom simultaneous possession call that decided a Monday Night Football game. But for now we can put this episode behind us and move on.

Of course, the replacement ref apocalypse of 2012 was not the first labor dispute involving professional sports referees and umpires. And I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Here’s a look back and six other occasions when negotiations broke down between a league and its officials and replacements took the field, court, ice, or pitch.

1979 Major League Baseball Umpires Strike

The Major League Umpires Association (MLUA) emerged in 1970 when umpires went on strike for one game during the American and National League Championship Series. The strike forced Major League baseball to recognize and negotiate with the new union.

By the end of the 1970s, Major League umpires had grown unhappy with their salaries and the benefits available to them.

A Philadelphia lawyer named Richie Philips took over as head of the MLUA in 1978. The following year, he advised Major League umpires not to return their 1979 contracts. (Under the existing labor agreement, umpires couldn’t technically go on strike.)

Prior to the 1979 season a Major League Baseball umpire earned between $17,500 and $40,000 per year. That was pretty good money by 1979 standards, but it was quite a bit less than what an NBA official could make. (NBA refs worked half as many games for a league that, at the time, wasn’t terribly popular.)

The MLUA asked Major League Baseball for increased salaries, a better pension plan, and in-season vacation time.

American League umpire Don Denkinger during the 1979 MLUA strike. (Denkinger is best known for a call he made in the 1985 World Series. But, for the benefit of Cardinals fans, I won’t bring it up.)

Two umpires, the National League’s Paul Pryor and the American League’s Ted Hendry, had signed and returned their contracts before the union decided to “strike.” Pryor and Hendry were the only Major League umps who showed up for work on Opening Day.

Major League Baseball hired eight replacement umpires from the minor leagues and relied on retired and amateur umpires to fill the remaining positions. Pryor and Hendry gave Major League Baseball ten-days notice and, by the end of April, joined their peers on the other side of the picket line.

1979’s scab umpires got the same sort of reception as this year’s NFL replacement refs, sans Twitter.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports editor Phil Musick wrote on May 15, 1979:

[The] absence of major-league umpires due to a continuing labor dispute has brought with it the suspicion that their replacements are, at best, vulnerable to the pressure and, at worst, homers of the ilk which has made victory in college basketball more a matter of geography than of skill. . . .

The Pirates, for example, pay substitute umpires—as opposed to several professionals employed by the National League—$103 per game. Harry Smail, a bulky Greensburg credit union official, and Joe Schratz, a Providence recreation department administrator, have worked a majority of Pirate home games.

In a joking mood Sunday, Willie Stargell reportedly said of Smail to Cincinnati’s Joe Morgan, “How can he call me out when last night I sent him two pizzas, a half-gallon of beer and a hamburger on the side?”

Smail had made a crucial call Saturday which gave Stargell life at the plate after he apparently struck out to end an inning. Stargell promptly singled to tie a game, which the Pirates eventually won, 3-2.

The same day the Post-Gazette published that column, Major League Baseball and the MLUA settled the dispute, giving umpires a pay raise, a 401(k) plan, in-season vacation, and better pensions and per diems.

The amateur umps returned to their day jobs, but the eight replacements MLB hired stayed on as full-time umpires. Three of the eight were fired in the 1980s; two others resigned. Fred Brocklander retired in 1992, and John Shulock retired in 2002. Darryl Cousins is still working in the bigs. He’s currently the second longest tenured umpire in Major League Baseball.

1993 NHL Officials Strike

A lot was happening in the National Hockey League in 1993.

New franchises in Anaheim and Miami took the ice; the North Stars moved from Minnesota to Dallas and lost the “North”; and the league dropped its traditional conference (Campbell and Wales) and division (Adams, Patrick, Norris, and Smythe) names in favor of geographical ones.

But as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim made their Pacific Division debut, and as the Florida Panthers were hoping to make some noise in the Atlantic, NHL officials were seeking a new collective bargaining agreement. The officials were asking for improvements to severance pay, pensions, and playoff compensation.

By November, the league hadn’t budged and the members of the National Hockey League Officials Association (NHLOA) voted unanimously to strike.

The NHL decided to hire replacement officials, but minor league, college, and major junior hockey officials overwhelmingly supported the NHLOA and refused to take the ice in place of their NHL brethren.

Despite a lack of experienced replacements, the strike lasted 17 days. For close calls, the scab officials would sometimes look to the booth for help. Thus the strike gave us this clip of Toronto Maple Leafs’ coach Pat Burns freaking out and trying to get the attention of the upstairs officials:

After 17 days the NHL and NHLOA agreed on a new CBA, ending the strike.

1995 NBA Referee Lockout

Basketball fans will not soon forget the NBA player lockouts of 1998 and 2011, but they may not recall the season when the league locked out its referees.

When the 1995-96 NBA season began, the NBA was celebrating Michael Jordan’s return to the hardwood. Fans were curious to see whether new Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman would be able to co-exist with Jordan and coach Phil Jackson and whether ascendant Western Conference powers Seattle and two-time defending champion Houston would be able to stop Jordan’s Bulls from winning a fourth ring.

But that season opened with the league’s officials on the sidelines.

The NBA had hired 41 replacement refs from the Continental Basketball Association and other semi-pro leagues, 19 short of the 60 officials the league had before the lockout. The NBA was forced two use two-man crews, instead of the usual three.

Players weren’t happy.

Knicks forward Charles Oakley described the scab refs as “terrible.” He explained, “They need five of these guys to equal one of the regular refs.”

Robert Horry, who played for the Rockets during the 1995-96 season, said of the situation in 2009, “The thing about when you had those amateurs on the floor, they didn’t know your tendencies. A lot of things move so fast in the N.B.A., and they would assume things.”

Replacement ref Bill Kennedy with Dennis Rodman during the 1995 lockout. Kennedy would go on to become a full-time NBA official. (Photo by Chris Wilkins/AFP)

After 68 days, the league and the officials reached and agreement and the regular referees returned to the floor.

The NBA locked out its referees again in 2009, but the two parties resolved the situation before the beginning of the season. By then the league had a full complement of replacements already in its employ and was prepared to promote 60 D-League and WNBA officials.

1999 Major League Baseball Umpires Mass Resignation

Back in 1979, when the umpires were looking for a new deal with Major League Baseball, their labor agreement didn’t allow them to strike. Twenty years later they found themselves in a similar situation.

When the 1999 season began, the umps were already fed up with Major League Baseball.

MLB wanted to restructure the umpire system so that 1) umpires would report to the commissioner instead of to the American or National League, and so that 2) umpires would be easier to replace. MLB had also proposed making changes to the strike zone, which the umpires did not approve of.

In July of that year, 54 of the 68 Major League umpires turned in their resignations, effective September 2. MLB accepted the resignations of 22 of these umpires and replaced them with minor league officials.

Meanwhile the MLUA filed unfair labor practice charges against MLB with the National Labor Relations Board and unsuccessfully requested arbitration from the American Arbitration Association.

Eventually U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Joyner oversaw negotiations between the league and the umpires. The two parties agreed on a severance package for the 22 umpires whose resignation had been accepted.

The late Eric Gregg—shown here at work during the 1999 season, his last in the bigs—was one of 22 umpires whose resignation MLB accepted. Gregg would never work another Major League game, but he did get a pretty nice severance package. (Photo by By George Widman, AP)

Still, 22 umpires were without a job and MLUA members had lost confidence in the union’s leadership. In November, the umpires voted to decertify the MLUA and find a new union to represent them.

The World Umpires Association (WUA) took over as the umpires’ bargaining agent in February of 2000. The majority of the 22 umps who resigned would eventually be hired back or allowed to retire with back pay.

2001 NFL Officials Lockout

This season’s lockout of NFL officials has become one of the year’s biggest sports stories.

Packers guard T.J. Lang’s profanity-laden tweets about the replacement officials’ shortcomings following Green Bay’s controversial last-second loss to Seattle on Monday night have been retweeted more than 150,000 times.

But this isn’t the first time the NFL locked out its refs and used replacements. It happened not that long ago, and no one really noticed.

In August 2001 talks between the league and the NFL Referees Association broke down, and the NFL locked out its officials two weeks into the preseason. Replacement refs took the field for the remaining preseason games and for Week 1.

Week 1 games were played on Sunday September 9 and Monday September 10, 2001. That Tuesday a major news story broke that made people forget and not care about anything going on in the NFL.

When the NFL and its referees returned for Week 3 in 2001, people weren’t really thinking about the state of pro football officiating. (Photo from KCChiefs.com)

The NFL postponed Week 2 games and, by the time the league resumed play in Week 3, the lockout was over.

Owners agreed to give officials a 50 percent pay raise for the 2001 season and a 100 percent raise over the course of a six-year contract.

2010 Scottish Football Referee Strike

Most any referee or umpire at any level expects to receive a certain amount of abuse from fans. But in 2010 Scottish soccer refs had taken so much criticism that they feared for their safety.

During an October match between Dundee United and Celtic, with the score tied 1-1, referee Dougie McDonald awarded Celtic a penalty kick but reversed the call after talking to assistant ref Steven Craven. Celtic was irate, and McDonald made things worse by lying about the decision-making process.

In the weeks that followed, Craven retired, McDonald received a warning, and Scottish soccer fans wanted answers.

In the fall of 2010 Dougie McDonald was the least popular man in Scotland. (Photo by Lynne Cameron/PA)

Players, fans, and coaches wondered aloud whether refs were biased for or against certain teams, and the anti-ref sentiment grew. Pete Wishart, a member of Parliament, demanded that referees declare their allegiances.

The refs got fed up with the criticism and went on strike in late November.

The Scottish Football Association (SFA) scrambled to hire refs from other European leagues. After one weekend with replacement officials, McDonald announced his early retirement, easing tensions and allowing the SFA and its refs to come to an agreement.


About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


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  1. […] 1970 — Major League Baseball umpires called their first-ever labor strike before the first game of the American and National League Championship Series. (More info.) […]

  2. […] 1970 — Major League Baseball umpires called their first-ever labor strike before the first game of the American and National League Championship Series. (More info.) […]

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