For Refs’ Association, Clarity Was Key in a Crisis

During the NFL referee lockout, the National Association of Sports Officials had to walk a fine line in representing its members—both the locked-out officials and those replacing them.

Normalcy returned to the National Football League last week, as the league and its officials ended a three-month lockout, allowing the professional referees to take their jobs back from replacement officials.

The public relations nightmare extended beyond the NFL’s offices in New York—which received over 70,000 angry messages from fans after replacement refs botched several calls in the waning seconds of a Monday Night Football game. The National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), while free of calls from enraged fans, had to work through some crisis management of its own. The association represents 19,000 officials from a variety of sports, across all levels, including the officials who were locked out and the ones replacing them.

Barry Mano, founder and president of NASO and publisher of Referee magazine, talked with about how NASO managed to walk such a fine line with its members and the media.

How was NASO affected by the lockout?

NASO has developed into the leading advocate on behalf of sports officials, so when something like this happens, many members of the media come calling. Just within the last few days I’ve done 16 interviews talking about the subject of the lockout, the replacement officials, etc. So we’re there to try to provide some sort of intellectual architecture as to what is going on well above and beyond just the game calls that might be taking place.

I don’t think the replacement experience added anything positive to our industry. It didn’t make us look better. I needed to look at it from a more industry-wide level.

What challenges did NASO face when responding to the situation between the NFL, the locked-out refs, and the replacement officials?

The challenge for us, and the challenge for me personally as a spokesperson, is that all of the NFL officials are our members, and quite a few of the replacement officials are also our members, so exactly what tack can I take? Add to that, we have a working relationship with the National Football League itself. We had to carefully navigate those waters.

And how did you do that?

We needed to, number one, never lose sight of that fact that we’re here to serve our members. You’ve got to be extremely thoughtful. To me, the replacements were a group of well-paid volunteers in a failed experiment. I don’t think the replacement experience added anything positive to our industry. It didn’t make us look better. I needed to look at it from a more industry-wide level.

With respect to the locked-out referees, I think the world came to understand the extraordinary value that those men bring to the equation of professional football. Certainly the NFL had an appreciation for it before, and they probably have a stronger appreciation for it now.

When you were in contact with the locked-out refs versus the replacements, did your message ever vary?

We had no general message going to the replacements. I expected that they probably would have read my phraseology in all of the other interviews that I’ve done, and I thought that would be enough.

With respect to the NFL Referees Association, I sent an email telling them that I think—especially after the situation in the [September 24 Monday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks], which I characterized as sort of the Three Mile Island of officiating—that it was reinforced, the extraordinary value that those men bring to pro football, and I wanted to make sure that they understood that we as an association felt that way.

With the lockout having started in the summer and not getting much attention until the regular season, was there any way to prepare for this?

Well [we] didn’t know the size of it, but we were prepared that it was going to come. All of our [staff] know a lot of officials, are active officials, and know people in the sports media business, but we lock [communication] down in situations like this. We tell our people that [the message] needs to come through me. It’s not some sort of an ego trip—I need to manage the message.

With all of the negative press about the replacement refs and the lockout, did NASO have to employ any crisis management tactics?

The crisis management comes in the immediacy of these things. It’s just incredible how this stuff goes insane, and you have people knocking on your door, and they need to talk to you now, and they have a deadline now. And you’re trying to be as helpful as you can be. It isn’t like old crisis management. You don’t have time to plan anything.

You really need to have principles to which you speak and have some consistent frame of reference if you’re going to be picking up the phone and talking to people. You try to be very cautious in what you say, but at the same time you have to say something.

We’ve made our mark in the last 32 years at NASO, developing relationships with sports leagues and nurturing them, while at the same time becoming the leading advocate. And the only way you do that is by stating things in a principled manner and without equivocation. That’s my belief. You need to have an architecture to which you speak. And NASO has been able to do that so far.


Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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