Several weeks have passed since our last 19-item look at the labor dispute. Since there’s exactly a month to go until the draft and no significant developments expected over the next 10 days, we decided that it made sense to provide a fresh snapshot of the most important issues and takes relating to the mess that threatens to mar the rest of the offseason, and beyond.
1. April 6 looms large.
On March 11, the NFLPA decertified, and the NFL responded by locking out the players. Decertification included a lawsuit aimed at blocking the lockout, specifically with a request that the court lift the lockout now, while the lawsuit unfolds.
The hearing will happen on April 6, in a Minnesota federal court. At some point after the hearing ends, Judge Susan Nelson will issue a ruling. The party that loses will file an emergency appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At some point, likely before June 1, the process will be finalized. If the players win, the lockout will end. If the league wins, the lockout will continue.
Though it’s in the fans’ interests for the players’ position to prevail, a far better outcome would be a negotiated compromise that lays the foundation for a return to long-term labor peace.
2. League apparently doesn’t want to negotiate.
After the players decertified and sued, the NFL seemed to be ready to keep talking, and the players seemed to be dragging their feet. Then, after the NFL filed its 49-page written response to the motion to lift the lockout, the players seemed to be ready to talk, and the league seemed to be dragging its feet.
At this point, the NFL is hiding behind semantics. The league wants to continue “collective bargaining,” and the players want to engage in settlement talks regarding their lawsuit.
The reality? It’s the same thing. Although, as NFL general counsel Jeff Pash recently told Judy Battista of the New York Times, the league doesn’t want to negotiate a settlement agreement because ensuing CBA would be subject to court oversight indefinitely, the parties could agree as part of their negotiations that it wouldn’t be.
In the end, then, it’s a distinction without a difference. In our view, the league doesn’t want to talk because the league believes it will defeat the motion to lift the lockout.
The league has every right to let it ride. But, please, spare us this nonsense about being ready to immediately return to negotiations when, in reality, you’ve decided that you think you’ll win in court.
3. The core of the problem.
The parties disagree primarily regarding revenue. The heart of the revenue debate arises from the fact that the players have been receiving roughly 50 cents of every dollar that goes through the cash register — and that the owners have decided that, as the dollars reach ten billion annually, the rent is too damn high.
Recently, we offered some suggestions for bridging the gap. Regardless of whether the parties use one or more (or none) of our ideas, the goal will be to find a way to make both sides happy.
Or, at a minimum, equally unhappy.
4. The role of NFL Alumni.
An unfortunate collateral issue has arisen regarding the interactions of the group known as NFL Alumni with the NFLPA*. Funded in large part (if not exclusively) by the league, NFL Alumni has generated significant suspicion within the NFLPA*. That suspicion apparently boiled over last week, when NFL Alumni executive director George Martin had a heated meeting with the NFLPA*.
The dispute has low direct relevance to the labor dispute. For now. But if the fight morphs into a perception that the current players don’t respect the former players, fans could turn on the current players. That’s why it’s important — as to both the current players and the league (which eventually will want the fans to accept the current players again) — for the current players to find a way to make sure the media and the public understand that NFL Alumni is, essentially, a Trojan horse.
If it indeed is.
5. The lawyers take over.
Unfortunately, it could be too late.
Once the union decertified and filed an antritrust lawsuit, the lawyers took the wheel. And with David Boies running the show for the league, the attorneys are playing a game of chicken that, in the end, only they may win.
Regardless of the damage done to the owners, the players, the fans, and/or the sport, the lawyers will get paid. And the longer this lasts, the more money they’ll make.
6. The Brady case could change the game dramatically.
The players generally believe that the antitrust lawsuit filed with men like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees serving as named plaintiffs has one primary goal — to end the lockout. And they’re right.
The allegations in the lawsuit also attack time-honored tools for ensuring competitive balance, like the salary cap, the franchise tag, and even the draft.
Let’s assume, then, that the lawyers continue to drive this bus toward the cliff, earning hundreds of dollars per hour along the way. If the players’ lawyers prevail, the end result will be an NFL with no rules of any kind that apply to the 32 teams.
No draft. No limits on free agency. No limits on compensation.
That comes with a risk. With no union to protect their rights — and no mandatory minimum salaries — certain players will be paid peanuts. Long snappers will be lucky to get six figures. Punters, kickers, and plenty of second-stringers will see their total dollars go down.
Stars, on the other hand, will make even more. Eventually, five percent of the players could be making 95 percent of the money as teams budget to pay their big-ticket players and make up the difference by squeeze the vast majority of lunchpail guys who have benefited from collective bargaining.
Thus, if the players win the battle on April 6, the players and the fans will benefit. If the players win the war, however, everyone will lose. Except for the star players, and their agents.
And the lawyers.
7. “Family” will take on new importance for the rookies.
Two weeks ago, a report emerged that the NFLPA* wants incoming rookies to “boycott” the draft. The NFLPA* insists that no “boycott” is planned.
Still, the NFLPA* and several high-profile players have made their feelings known. Rookies shouldn’t support an event conducted by the entity that’s locking out the rookies and every other player.
It’s unfortunate, given that several veteran players haven’t batted an eye when it comes to getting some lockout face time on the league-owned broadcast operation. But the incoming players seem to be taking heed of the not-so-subtle admonition, which could morph into a full-blown problem once they join their teammates in the locker room, and their foes on the field.
So look for plenty of players to choose to spend the day with family, in lieu of going to New York and finding themselves in the middle of a tug-o-war between the draft and whatever competing event the NFLPA* may be contemplating. It’s the safest approach under the circumstances and, in the end, there’s a chance that only a handful of players will show up.
8. Why the players deserve blame.
Some fans blame the players for the mess we’re all currently in. Some fans blame the owners. Others blame both.
Put us down for both.
The players pulled the plug on negotiations and opted for litigation even though the owners put on the table an offer that provided a reasonable starting point for further talks. Though it wasn’t “fair” in the sense that the players should have accepted it, we think the offer provided a “fair” framework for further talks.
That’s why NFLPA* executive director DeMaurice Smith repeatedly has called the offer “the worst deal in the history of sports.” He and the players needed to justify the decision to short-circuit the bargaining process and to initiate the litigation option. The best way to do so was to call the offer a horribly, and historically, bad one.
It wasn’t. The NFL made multiple key concessions on non-economic terms. Though the revenue side of the deal needed work, the players could have kept working. Instead, they apparently had already decided to decertify and sue.
As to the lawsuit, and as mentioned above, it could dramatically change the sport as we know it. The paperwork filed by the players pushes for an end to the draft and a scuttling of all restrictions on free agency. Though the players may have included those allegations for leverage only at this point, the claims can take on a life of their own. In time, if the players have some success, they could push for an NFL in which there are no rules from team to team, which potentially will strip from the sport the sense that, in any given year, any given team can win it all.
And that could diminish the overall interest in the league. Which could decrease the popularity of the sport, along with the revenue it generates.
All because the players decided not to keep talking.
9. Why the owners deserve blame.
Of course, the players decided not to keep talking in large part because they believed that the owners were disrespecting them at the bargaining table and beyond. From the antics of the two Jerrys — Richardson and Jones — to the long stretches of thumb twiddling that, amazingly, mediator George Cohen didn’t notice and/or didn’t explain and/or didn’t try to remedy to the “lockout insurance” case, the owners accomplished their goal of frustrating the players too well.
It never should have been that way. The owners should have treated the players like men, giving them the face time with the key decision makers that they wanted, and at all times treating them with dignity and respect.
The owners also shouldn’t have allowed themselves five years ago to be bullied into doing what turned out to be a bad deal. But with teams pressed tightly at the time against the salary cap as the onerous rules of the last capped year were approaching and with the late Gene Upshaw proclaiming that, if in 2007 the salary cap went away it would never return, the league blinked, buying time via a bad deal that, as legend has it, former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue wanted to do so that he could retire.
But it’s not fair to blame Tagliabue. In the end, 30 owners agreed with the former Commissioner, whose successor was in the thick of the last CBA, but who somehow has avoided any blame for the bad deal the NFL did.
Bizarrely, the league instead seems to be angry at the players for getting a good deal for themselves, and some owners appear to be hell bent on tilting the scales sharply in the owners’ direction. Though the league claims that it merely wants to do a deal with which everyone can be happy over the long haul, we get the feeling that the league also wants to determine for the players the terms of their happiness.
“Trust us” simply doesn’t fly in any sophisticated, high-stakes relationship. The league claims its not as profitable as it would like to be. Fine, then open the books. It’s that simple.
No one believes that anyone who has a spoon in the $9.3 billion stew is hurting in any way financially. If the owners want the players to believe it, the owners have to prove it.
Instead, the owners believe they can shut down the sport until the players don’t care about the owners’ finances. Come September, the players will be sufficiently worried about their own.
And that’s really what the league is up to here. The players get paid too much and their careers are too short to skip a year entirely. So the NFL wants to twist their arms until they cry, “Uncle.” Moving forward, it won’t be a matter of the players being “happy” with the deal. It’ll be a matter of the players realizing that they’re making good money, and that the consequence of taking a stand means they’ll be making none.
10. The fans are being taken for granted by both sides.
Both sides desperately want the fans to be on their side. Thus, both sides will say how much they care about the fans.
Previously, we’ve said that they don’t care about us. We need to revise that a bit. They do care; how can they have no affection for a group that gives them so much money?
The better description is that they’re taking us all for granted.
They, the owners and the players, quietly assume that, when it’s all over, we’ll be back. Some may even assume based on record ratings that absence will make the heart grow even fonder.
Either way, the parties currently have no fear that the fans will abandon the game. And they’re probably right. But that doesn’t make it OK for the two parties to presume that we’ll be here waiting with our cold, wet noses pressed against the window, periodically wagging our tails at signs that our master could be home soon — and periodically yelping at the fact that he hasn’t arrived yet.