From the failed strike of 1987 to the 2011 lockout, which saw the players blink on the verge of losing real money, it’s become a given that, when it comes to the nuclear option of labor relations, the owners have the upper hand.
Work stoppages don’t really work in the NFL, from the players’ perspective. Football players want to play football — unlike most other unionized workers, whose day-in, day-out job is hardly the realization of a lifelong dream. Football players also make far more money than other unionized workers, creating financial obligations that become impossible to satisfy with a zero dollars a year salary plus benefits, babe. And whereas other unionized workers can count on overtime (and the money that goes with it) to make back lost money as management tries to catch up on pre-existing production obligations, lost NFL work is lost forever. With no chance to recoup a penny of it.
And if a full season is lost, the players would see $9 billion disappear forever, with no chance to earn any of it back.
Despite those realities, which may be impossible to overcome no matter what I type next, there are dynamics that potentially give the players more leverage if/when a work stoppage (lockout or strike) should happen in 2021. For starters, plenty of owners are elderly and older. Does, for example, 78-year-old Jerry Jones want to lose a shot at winning a Super Bowl by scrapping an entire season? Plenty of other older owners may feel the same way.
And plenty of owners, regardless of age, also may have no desire to deal with the inevitable litigation that would happen in the event of a lockout, with the union disclaiming interest, the NFL losing the antitrust exemption that applies to a league-wide unionized workforce, and the players challenging every attempt by 32 independent businesses to coordinate employment rules as a clear violation of federal antitrust laws. And even if the league would try its best to paint the players as the villains of a work stoppage, more and more media and fans seem to be realizing the folly of blindly siding with The Billionaires.
Meanwhile, the exponential growth in the value of NFL franchises since 2011 also has resulted in a dramatic increase in operating expenses. New stadiums have significant debt-service obligations. How, for example, would the Raiders and the Rams pay for their new stadiums without the revenue that comes from having a full slate of football games played there?
Then there’s the obsession with growing the game in London. More than a decade of momentum could be squandered if, suddenly, the four games to be played there in 2021 became none.
And as to the threat of antitrust litigation, let’s not forget that the union’s biggest gains came when it wasn’t a union, when Reggie White and company challenged the NFL’s free-agency restrictions via a landmark lawsuit that eventually was settled through the establishment of a system of veteran movement that the NFL successfully had avoided for decades. If/when the players commit to proceeding as non-union employees (thereby missing no game checks) and fighting each and every antitrust violation that is hiding in plain sight (the salary cap, the franchise tag, restricted free agency, and . . . wait for it . . . the draft), the players could eventually have the owners saying uncle, and not the other way around.
So as the players regroup to consider their options, they should be considering that, perhaps this time around, they may have more leverage. Perhaps the owners will, this time around, lack the collective resolve to shut the sport down. Perhaps the financial obligations for the owners will be as daunting as they’ll be for the players. (And they’ll definitely be daunting for the players.) Perhaps a commitment to abandoning the union model and compelling the NFL through the court system to act as 32 independent businesses that legally cannot coordinate regarding their work forces (no differently than McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Burger King and Arby’s and Taco Bell and KFC can’t coordinate regarding their own work forces) will be the thing that finally pushed the pendulum in the general direction of the players.
Or maybe simply the threat of these potential developments will be the thing that gets the owners to make just enough concessions now to ensure a continuation of long-term labor peace, and to allow the NFL to parlay stability within the player ranks into a cash bonanza that will make all owners and players significantly richer over the course of the next decade via the next wave of TV deals.