A Ref Union Op-Ed.
May 20, 2020
If there is one lesson I hope we have learned from the last two months, it is the value and dignity of the human worker and their roles in society that we have always taken for granted. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our under-appreciated grocers and couriers, not to mention the millions of nurses, administrators, and other medical professionals, finally received proper recognition for keeping our essential services running as the rest of us bunkered down. Today, most low-wage workers that remain on the front lines are working harder than ever, outnumbered by cutbacks to every industry brought about by the depressing state of the new economy. We owe these workers an immense debt of gratitude. We owe it to them to remember their importance even as things start to get better. We owe them an everlasting even after our masks come off and the plexiglass shields finally get taken down. And we owe it to them to never overlook or dismiss their humanity in a world of increasing automation.
Automation in our industry really doesn't come up for discussion very often. At the grassroots level especially, where there is no budget for instant replay or electronic strike zones, referees don't have to worry about losing their jobs to a machine. However, there is a new threat to our working conditions in the form of an automated assigning system that could effectively lower our pay and silence our voice. As humans, we can continue to fight for better wages and proper treatment on the travel ball and AAU circuit. As a machine, Silbo could not care less about such issues.
The humanity behind officiating would be lost if programs like Silbo rise to power.
Silbo is a new phone app that offers game opportunities to officials upon sign-up, posted by sports leagues and tournaments willing to take the risk of having random referees show up to their games. Perhaps the best way describe Silbo is to recall one of their former competitors that has since gone out of business: Rent-A-Ref. Game administrators would upload their schedules onto the Rent-A-Ref platform, and like Uber or Lyft, games would appear as "opportunities" for officials to self-assign themselves for the advertised rate. There wasn't much of a barrier to entry; anybody with a striped shirt could download the app and get to work. The problem lies in that just like with Lyft or Uber; the workers (the referees) have no input as to what each gig should be worth. The app aims to produce volume, for its registrants and of course for itself, with margins and profit for individual officials nowhere among its list of concerns.
Silbo uses a unique marketing approach in that it claims that automation “empowers” referees, which is a little like saying that automatic checkouts somehow “empower” the grocery store workers. It is a ridiculous oxymoron; Silbo does not empower the referee at all. Instead it leaves every element of the official's working conditions at the unilateral whim of the tournament or league director. Silbo's direct-to-consumer approach allows tournaments and leagues to dictate the price of referee services. Without negotiation or the ability to bargain, referees are left only with the option to "take it or leave it," which as anybody that has ever faced such a decision can tell you that it is not very “empowering” at all.
What would be empowering is to let the referee get a say in their rates, just like any self-employed and true independent contractor. For example, we are never able to dictate to a hairdresser how much we would pay for a haircut. They are empowered with complete control over setting a price for their services. While there is sometimes a bit of back-and-forth negotiation possible with contractors, the utility of an effective bargaining session is that both the worker and consumer come away with a mutually satisfactory arrangement. It is our opinion that referees should have the same bargaining power as other true craftsmen and self-employed individuals. Of course, as such a large body of workers, if each referee were to try to negotiate their own rates at every tournament, it would create a logistical nightmare. Hence the traditional system is to utilize assignors (or a union representative) to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of local officials.
Instead of going to a local assignor, administrative fees would go to corporate suits.
Referees would have input on what they deserve to be paid, which would be weighed against what the client is willing to pay, creating an agreed-upon baseline market price. Silbo’s platform seemingly negates collective bargaining and shifts the power solely to the tournament administrators to set the prices. No negotiation is even possible through their closed one-way portal. To a tournament director, this looks rather promising. Before COVID-19, referee rates were finally starting to rise from a tightening supply and an explosive demand for qualified officials to staff the thousands of AAU events held every single year. An automated process like Silbo looks like the perfect tool that could help program directors curtail expenses. However, whatever small amount is saved on the referees themselves is counteracted by the extra fees necessary to maintain Silbo’s undoubtedly costly digital platform. Instead of paying a fee to a local assignor that could actually be present at the event, directors would be pitching it to a team of executives and technical support staff stationed along the East Coast.
In terms of quality, every experienced coordinator can vouch that a crew of officials provides a far better product than a hodgepodge of individual referees self-assigning themselves games like Door Dash drivers accepting a Jack-In-The-Box order. Our Ref Union members and those of other reputable organizations are personally recruited, vetted, and even hazed before being admitted into our referee fraternity. It is not a process wherein anybody can just “sign up” to ref, which is how Silbo recruits its members. Silbo appears to want to remove all foundational roadblocks, bypass all institutions of quality control, so that everybody can just pick up a whistle and go to work. The risk to an event's quality under such an approach goes without saying.
While composing this editorial, I reached out to an assignor who is also a Regional Manager of Silbo in Florida and I asked him how Silbo "empowers" the official. His answer: “More games.”
“More games?” I replied, “As in, they are hosting events and starting up leagues? Do they actually create games or additional work opportunities that would otherwise not exist?”
Of course not. Silbo is not in the business of hosting tournaments. They are not creating extra jobs. They might actually be displacing the jobs of local coordinators and assignors while offering none of the local support for their clients or protection for their staff. They are the ultimate robotic middleman in a society currently grieving from very human losses of both lives and jobs. At a time wherein we’re regaining our appreciation for our fellow human being, Silbo is aiming at even further automation of our industry. Silbo does not “empower” referees; they reduce them to figures — or ticker symbols —on what they call their “Ref XChange.”
We believe that every official, even rookies who come to work with gaudy watches, deserve better than a "take it or leave it" approach when it comes to game opportunities.
To truly empower officials, Ref Union believes in a strong support network of assignors working together. What empowers officials is having a representative that will negotiate for their best rates, ensure proper working conditions, and have their backs on the field and on the court. What empowers referees is the ability to provide input on potential contracts or events, versus being given the choice to "take it or leave it." While there may be barriers of entry into this avocation, such is the same for any reputable industry that requires dedication and commitment to a craft. There is a nobility in becoming a sports referee. There is a pride that comes in being accepted by your colleagues and becoming a member of a team. Referees are people and ours is a service industry, that through the pandemic we hope would get more pronounced and appreciated once we come out of the work stoppage.
Silbo's model strips that humanity away en route to becoming just a more organized reiteration of "Rent-A-Ref," a demeaning jeu de mots that reduces officials to cogs within Silbo's automated system. There is no unity to such an approach; there is no empowerment through such a system. Such an app has the danger of repudiating the hard work and sacrifice of officials that have fought to increase our wages and improve our working conditions over the past decade. It would once again put all of the control in the hands of our tournament and league directors. We would lose our independent ability to negotiate and get paid our fair share. Instead we would be crossing our fingers hoping for any increase in pay. Respectfully, we encourage referees to refrain from working for Silbo, in favor of more human representation.
Editor's Note: Ref Union has reached out to Silbo on multiple occasions expressing our concerns regarding everything listed above. We have yet to receive a reply.