The NFL has everything that Americans can’t get enough of:
- Unrestrained violence masquerading as strategy
- Intense competition over short periods of time
- A visual smorgasbord bubbling over with unspoken racial, sexual and class overtones
But there’s one thing — and it’s pretty important — that the league doesn’t have leading up to Super Bowl Sunday this week — a collective bargaining agreement between the players and the owners.
Oh. You don’t care? That involves math, you say? You just want to eat your hot dogs, drink your beer and dream of the Raiderettes (since this year’s Super Bowl is cheerleader free)? How about if I tell you that if there’s no agreement there is no football.
- There is an NFL draft, but nobody can be signed.
- There are games scheduled, but nobody can play in them.
- Jerseys can be printed but without players’ names.
- The new Madden game will come out but no one’s face will be on it.
- Fantasy football geeks will have nothing to do all summer.
- Oh, and thousands of people from players to concession stand workers will be out of work.
While you’re keeping score on how offensive GoDaddy’s commercials will be this year, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, head of the players’ union are playing the real game by holding the entire fate of the NFL in their hands.
How did it come to this? This moment where the virtual pretzel is being slapped out of your virtual beer-guzzling mouth? Let’s break it down.
Why are were here?
On March 5, the current collective bargaining agreement, which holds the entire NFL together like a vise, expires and the players and owners are nowhere close to signing a new deal. Goodell has put on a good face in public, holding staged “townhalls” with fans and appearing to care about players, when he’s made it clear that the league won’t budge. And Smith has been rallying the troops for this fight for over two years, now encouraging players to save their money and prepare for a long hard fight. Neither man seems inclined to move on their positions. So what is the current deal that has both sides so angry?
The current deal, signed in 2006, breaks down to the 2,000 or so NFL players sharing about 60 percent of league revenues and the 32 owners sharing 40 percent of league revenue. The owners hated the deal and voted unanimously in 2008 to opt out when the deal expired in 2011. If the NFL players’ union doesn’t agree to the owner’s preferred contract changes, owners are prepared to lock them out for as long as it takes for those runaways to say “Toby.”
What the owners want is what anybody’s boss wants: For you to work more for less money and not complain about it.
They want a larger chunk of the profits, a salary cap to control how much rookies can make, an 18-game season, a change in the profit sharing math of the deal and an insurance policy. Insurance policy for what you ask? Owners like Jerry Jones (Cowboys) and Jerry Richardson (Panthers) say that they incur substantial financial risk in building up new stadiums to showcase games and they want a larger cut of the pie to cover their backs in case you know — the roof collapses or something. Which is apparently more common than anyone would like to admit.
What do the players want?
The players pretty much want things to stay the way they are. Which is why they’ve been preparing for this battle for two years now. At most they want more retirement and medical benefits, but that’s a standard request in a career that averages three years, but leaves you with lifelong injuries and medical expenses.
The owner’s case boils down to whether or not you believe they’re incurring more risk than the players in the game of football. Players suffer horrible injuries so often it’s become a joke to fans. From their perspective, their bodies and lives are at risk every time they take the field for the few years they can play the game. Plus, NFL players make the least amount of guaranteed money out of the three major American sports. Do you know who Luis Scola, Jared Jeffries or Kevin Martin are? They’re all bench players for the Houston Rockets who’ve never even smelled the NBA finals. Yet they each make more money per year than Tom Brady after 10 years and three Super Bowls with the Patriots.
Owners claim they take on a lot of risk in drafting players who may not turn out, building new stadiums, and paying into a revenue sharing scheme where the top 15 teams give money to the bottom 17 teams, which is like telling the the New York Giants to pay for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ gardener.
Of course no one forced the St. Louis Rams to pay $50 million in guaranteed money to rookie QB Sam Bradford, who turned out to be pretty good. Just like nobody forced the corpse of Al Davis and the Raiders to pay $31 million to QB JaMarcus Russell who chose “purple drank” and parties over an NFL career.
Rookie salary caps are just a way for owners to protect themselves from their own bad choices and force younger players to take a hit. Imagine your boss saying, “You have the resume of a six-figure guy but I got burned by my last hire so from now on I’m paying new hires in video game tokens and travel vouchers until I recoup my losses.”
Owners have also taken hits during the recession like everyone else. Attendance numbers and some ad revenues have gone down, but they are not equally distributed across all franchises.
Some of the hand-wringing over money could be solved if NFL owners would open up their books to prove just how much they are “hurting” but they patently refuse to do so. Despite some quibbling, when several U.S. Hockey franchises opened up their books and declared bankruptcy in 2005 it eventually helped move labor negotiations forward.
Both the players and the owners have aces in the hole that can take these negotiations to Def Con 4 in no time. The owners are poor-mouthing in the hopes of winning the public relations battle to portray themselves to fans and the media as plucky business guys braving the wild world of professional sports, rather than the crusty old oligarchical coots that we all know they really are.
Of course, they’ll win that battle every time.
They are old rich white businessmen fighting with rich young black men. The conservative working class white fan base of most sports in America is always teetering somewhere between homosexual lust and abject hatred for black athletes. And when money gets involved they invariably support the owners in the public sphere.
So despite the fact that this would be a lockout instead of a strike, players would still be perceived as greedy and undeserving. Plus, television revenues are locked in, so even if there was no football for weeks, or a whole season, the NFL owners still get checks from NBC, FOX, CBS and DirecTV to cover expenses.
But the players’ union has some magic beans to spill as well if need be. Players can refuse to let their images be used on any products for sponsors and advertises while there is no collective bargaining agreement, essentially cutting off ads to franchises. In addition, due to the Supreme Court ruling against the NFL last year, if there is an extended lockout players could file an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, something that might even have congressional support if things get that ugly.
The Fan’s Final Word
As a fan, and a believer in workers’ rights, I hope this agreement is made fairly soon in the spring and a long labor fight is avoided. The NBA and other major unions are all looking to this battle to see who comes out on top. If the players prevail, it’s seven more collective bargaining years of feasts for athletes as well as the dozens of smaller SEIU and service unions that work under the heel of NFL franchises. If they lose franchise owners will be so emboldened that any attempt at contract negotiations will be crushed.
The stakes are tightrope high and political in nature. There is an eerie similarity between Panthers owner Richardson extolling fellow owners at a private meeting to “Take Back THEIR league” and Tea Party rallies to “Take Back their Country.” This isn’t just about having football in the fall of 2011, this is about a group of owners trying to re-assert power over a group of “employees” who they see as getting a little too uppity for their own good.
The hope is that if a fight does happen both sides get bloody enough to be reasonable.
If not, and owners don’t budge, the NFL might become the newest repository for what William C. Rhoden referred to as America’s “40 Million Dollar Slaves.”