Now that the mediation process has ended once again, a day after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit dropped a strong hint that the ruling lifting the lockout will be overturned next month, NFLPA* executive director DeMaurice Smith has opted to take to the airwaves, not with words suggesting a willingness to compromise and negotiate, but with more rhetoric aimed at inflaming the fans (it probably won’t work) or holding the players together as a strong possibility of missed game checks approaches (it possibly will work, but perhaps not for long). His initial comments during a Tuesday night visit with Maurice Jones-Drew and Bryan McGovern of Sirius NFL Radio’s Late Hits amounted a reiteration of the point that Smith made on Monday.
A point that we still can’t understand.
“First league in the history of sports that has ever sued to not play their game,” Smith said. “When we reach a time or a moment in history when a professional sports league is suing to not play football, we’re in a bad spot.”
Actually, the more accurate statement could be that when we reach a time or a moment in history when the chief of a professional sports union is so badly bastardizing the facts, we’re in a bad spot.
“What do you think as a fan when you learn that the league that you write a check to, the teams that you’ve done nothing but cheer for for years are now suing to not play the game that we all love?” Smith later said, once again pushing the premise that the league has “sued” to implement the lockout. It’s simply not true; the league isn’t suing anyone, yet. The league is reacting to the lawsuit filed by the players when faced with the likelihood of a lockout.
Anyone who gets it understands what’s happening. The players sued to lift the lockout because any deal negotiated while the players are playing and getting paid to play will be better for the players. The owners have resisted the effort to lift the lockout because any deal negotiated while the players aren’t playing and aren’t getting paid to play will be better for the league. Defending against the players’ lawsuit, however, does not and never will amount to “suing” to not play the game.
The fact that Smith would imperil his credibility so openly and so brazenly demonstrates, in our view, the desperation he’s currently feeling. Once the Eighth Circuit decides to allow the lockout to remain in place, the question becomes when, not if, the players will demand that a deal be finalized so that they can continue to play football. Perhaps Smith thinks that, if he can get the players sufficiently pissed at the owners based on embellished and/or false allegations, they’ll suck it up and go without weeks if not months of game checks.
“We’re hoping that the court lifts the lockout,” Smith added, “but to me this is a low point in sports when a league that is extremely profitable, at the height of revenue generation with a loyal following of fans for the last 60 years has made a decision that it is much better to force the players into a lockout because you know that it is designed to get them to take a deal that you otherwise couldn’t negotiate.”
But that’s why employers lock union employees out. And that’s why union employees strike, as the NFL’s players did in 1982 and 1987. Withholding services and/or preventing folks from working applies leverage. The fact that, in this specific case, the notion of freezing the players out could be very effective doesn’t make it legally or morally wrong. The players may not like it, and the fans may not like it. Still, it’s no different from going on strike, and the players have never opted to refrain from striking out in deference to “the game” or its fans.
Eventually, the interview focused on what we believe to be the heart of the current dispute — whether the players will continue to get 50 cents of every dollar that passes through the cash register, even as those dollars exceed $10 billion per year and eventually approach $20 billion per year, and more. Smith speaks as if the continuation of the 50-percent share has become a birthright for the players. At some point, however, it becomes a fair business consideration for the owners to assess whether the players should continue to get half of an exponentially growing pie, especially in light of the players’ viable alternatives.
Indeed, Smith explained that he called the league’s March 11 offer the “worst deal in the history of sports” because it would have cut the players’ share from 50 percent to something less than 50 percent. “It was an easy call to say that it was the worst deal in history because from the day that we would have taken their offer it would have forever severed the players of the National Football League from a fair share of the revenue that we all know that they generate,” Smith said.
Smith continues to overlook the fact that, even if the percentages shrink, the total dollars paid to the players will continue to grow. So why doesn’t Smith ever acknowledge that? Probably because he fears that more than a few players would respond by saying, “So we’re still going to make more money each year? OK, we’re fine with that.”
Though the NFL isn’t the NFL without the players, the deeper question at this point is whether the NFL players are truly responsible for one half of the revenue of an ever-growing sport. The league has created, over a period of decades, the industry that is the NFL, with the teams and the logos and the colors and the TV contracts and the stadiums and everything else that allows the players to perform at the absolute highest level of the game. The fact that so many rookies wanted to bask in the glow of being drafted despite also being locked out confirms that the NFL has become, over time, a big deal. Though the NFL became a big deal in very large part because of the players, the teams and the league have worked together over an extended period of time to build the game into what it now is.
Is it “fair,” then, for the players to continue to insist on half of every dollar earned? Or is it “fair” to focus on total dollars to be paid, and to negotiate a “fair” amount based on that premise? In resolving those questions, the players and the NFLPA* must remember that precious few industries include a work force that dictates the amount of the gross revenue it will receive.
Again, we’re not taking sides. We believe that both the owners and the players need to be reasonable and fair, and to strike a deal that will restore long-term labor peace, a concept that has now faded deep into the rear-view mirror. Smith’s strategy of using tough talk based on exaggerated (at best) facts is, we fear, keeping that from happening. Given his background as a litigator and the strong emphasis that the NFLPA* has placed on pursuing leverage through the legal system, his words seem to be more focused on keeping his clients from getting weak-kneed as the prospect of a full season without football income approaches.
We welcome him to prove us wrong by ditching the rhetoric and finding a way to engage in meaningful negotiations aimed at a fair compromise for the owners and the players.