July 4th, 2022
As we celebrate America's independence on this 4th of July, it may also be an appropriate time to re-evaluate our own. Are referees truly the "independent" contractors we pride ourselves to be?
What does it really mean to be independent? If it's merely the ability to click "Accept" or "Decline" to an assignment on Arbiter, then that might be setting the bar a little too low. Every employee has the "take it" or "leave it" option at their disposal as well. Wouldn't true independence carry with it a few more benefits than that?
Consider this: can you solicit your own games and dictate your own hours of operation? Or is your work schedule controlled by somebody else (typically your assignor)? How much influence do they have over you? Are you ever pressured into working a game you don't want out of fear of falling out of favor for future assignments? If yes, do you really feel "independent" when you can get coerced into working? And how is that different from being an employee, wherein if you don't do something your boss wants, they fire you and you're left to wonder where you'll clock in next Monday?
The next thing you should ponder is: how much power do you have over the cost of your own labor?
A truly independent contractor should be able to set their own prices. For example: last year my parents hired a gardener to tend to their ornamental backyard. He is independent, sets his own hours, dictates his prices, and has multiple clients for whom he does a variety of groundskeeping tasks. My parents called him up, explained what they need, and guess what happened next? The gardener told them his price. Perhaps there was a little back-and-forth negotiation along the way, but ultimately, it wasn't up to my parents (the consumer) to unilaterally dictate that their gardener is to make only $30 per hour. The true mark of an independent contractor is pricing power!
How about referees? Do you ever get to name your price? Do you even have any influence over how much your game fees are? If you are a referee in Las Vegas, do you tell Tom Sawyer how much he should get from the tournament client, or does he unilaterally dictate your worth per game or per hour? When there is a tournament at Spooky Nook Sports, does Joe Fuhrman give you any say as to what a fair rate should be? Or does he just offer you games for the weekend ⏤ "take it or leave it" ⏤ at $25 for the umpteenth consecutive year?
When you really dissect just how little power you have, it's hard to put together any cogent argument on how referees can truly call themselves "independent." Most have neither the capability to solicit their own clients, put a price on their own services, nor even have any real control over their game schedules. It may not be the happiest thought to enter into the holiday with, but it's time to get real about it. Very few referees are truly independent. The few that are, are the ones that are either so good, so well-known, so well-liked, or tenured enough that they can negotiate a few more bucks per hour and they have no worries about getting dropped from a rotation over a declined game. Those kinds of referees are in the minority. Those referees get to enjoy actual "independence."
The rest of us are NOT independent. We are in this profession together and need to start working together if we have any hopes to start making this job better for all of us. Working together for higher wages, better treatment, and improved working conditions will bring us better results and more satisfaction than puffing our chest touting a fraudulent "independent" label. One of the ways to do that is to work with an assignor that will represent you and your best interests in contract negotiations with leagues/tournaments, not an assignor that only echoes the prices that a director would like to pay. If someone else calls the shots, you might as well call it what it is: the most tentative employment contract in sports.
Have a Happy Independence Day!