To try to understand the modern world of professional football, it might be a good idea to watch Spartacus, the story of three Roman gladiators who are in the same “Luda” (Latin for Team) who finally break free from the chains of their brutal and violent profession to start a revolution against their “Lanistas” (Owners).
Though Spartacus has a lot more white guys and openly gay gladiators than you’ll ever see in the National Football League (NFL), the similarities are striking for two ‘sports’ existing two thousand years apart. Both focus on sports that bring incredible fame that ends in a short and violent bloody game. They each show the story of how an owner’s insatiable greed finally leads to a revolt by the players. Last week, when the NFL players union decertified, and the NFL owners locked the players out, we saw the first spear thrown at the imperial perch of power. Interestingly enough the NFL saga is occurring as budget wars in states like Wisconsin and Ohio are pushing Republicans and unions over the brink. The revolution has begun.
NFL owners claim that they’ve been losing money since signing a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) in 2006. So, the owners opted out of the agreement in 2010, setting in motion a series of negotiations to change the entire structure of the NFL. Last week, after a 24-hour, then 7-day extension the clock had just about run out. The players knew that the CBA expired at midnight March 11th, and that if the owner’s didn’t get the deal that they wanted they would simply lock out the players union, refusing to pay healthcare costs, salaries and bonuses until the new CBA was to their liking. So, the players said what any smart employee would do when they see the writing on the wall: “You Can’t Fire Me – I Quit!” and decertified their union.
Owners have a legal relationship/partnership with a union and can lock out employees to force terms that are more to their liking. But if the union doesn’t exist then NFL owners are just refusing to pay over 1,800 independent contractors, which is illegal. Players filed a class action lawsuit against the NFL asking that the illegal lockout be blocked. Now, we have gladiators and owners glaring at each other through iron gates wondering which side will cave first.
What An Owner Wants
NFL owners say they’re losing money under the current deal, and need to expand the season to 18 games, limit incoming rookies salaries for their first 4 seasons and increase their share of NFL profits from about 42 to 45 percent. But the real sticking point is about the big pot of gold, the $9 billion in estimated profits that the NFL is raking in every year.
Owners say they’re incurring a lot of risk in drafting players, building new stadiums and promoting teams and therefore should get $2 billion off the top to cover themselves from potential losses, then divide the remaining $7 billion with the players.
The players were not in a particularly giving mood with ownership since the two sides couldn’t agree on basic rules like honesty, integrity and financial transparency. On the one hand, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell claims to care about player safety, but by expanding the season to 18 games he is all but ensuring more season ending and career ending injuries. This in the face of the consistent evidence showing that NFL player concussions lead to shortened life spans, depression and often suicide.
Next, a rookie salary cap that stays in place for the first 4 years seems like a reasonable way to curtail exploding signing bonuses until you realize that the average NFL career is only 3 years. Most players will never play long enough for a “real” payout and owners would get new talent on the cheap. Plus, why should players take a financial hit because owners don’t do a good job of evaluating talent? If I overpaid for my last car and it turned out to be a lemon I can’t go to my next car dealer and insist that I get a discount for having a bad purchasing history.
Finally it is not entirely clear to the players and many outside evaluators that owners are really incurring that much ‘risk’ when building new stadiums and investing in their teams. No one has ever seen an NFL franchise go under or declare bankruptcy, unlike other sports. When new stadiums are built there are so many state tax breaks, bond measures and huge naming rights contracts that owners are making millions back on their investments. Why they need additional money to cover ‘risks’ is unclear to the gladiators who often never see any of these new ‘investments’.
DeMaurice “Spartacus” Smith, head of the now decertified players union believed that if the owners were crying poor, the least they could do was open up their books and share financial records of the 32 franchises over the last decade. The owners reportedly refused over 10 times over the last 2 years to give detailed financial statements on the health of the league. At the last minute on Friday, owners offered partial statements from some franchises over the last 5 years. This is like the IRS auditing you and all you give them is a couple of crumpled-up ATM receipts from your trip to Cancun last summer. The IRS ain’t buying it and neither was the union.
Yes, there are some differences between Spartacus and the NFL. Gladiators back then were slaves, and as much as William C. Rhoden’s recent piece is commendable, modern NFL players are not.
This article originally appeared at TheLoop21.com under the headline “I am Spartacus: NFL Lockout Sees NFL Owners and Players Go From Mediators to Gladiators.”