03.05.11

Three Outcomes of the NFL Contract Talks

For once, the players’ union isn’t blinking—playing hardball against the league monopoly. Sports writer Allen Barra on what to expect this week and why a win for the players is a win for everyone.

So what just happened? For months, the sports media has been telling us that the National Football League Players Association was about to be crushed in their contract negotiations with the league owners. Because, we all know, football players are supposed to be too spoiled and too immature to hold together as a real union.

And yet, the owners have now, twice, asked for an extension to the expiration date of the Current Bargaining Agreement. How do we know it was the owners who backed off? Because, for the first time in the history of their union, the players looked into the eyes of the most powerful owners in the most profitable league in sports and did not blink.

Let’s put it in football terms: The owners showed blitz, but the players did not jump off sides.

By mutual agreement the negotiations have been extended until 11:59 p.m. Friday, March 11. One thing seems to be clear: whether or not the union decides to compromise, they aren’t going to lose.

At a time of unprecedented prosperity, the owners are demanding that the players give back a billion dollars in overall revenues. Why? They aren’t even pleading economic hardship. What they want is for the players to pay for their new stadiums.

Such a demand is outrageous, and to the credit of many sportswriters who just a few weeks ago didn’t seem to know the difference between a strike and a lockout, everyone seems to understand this. In labor terms, it’s the equivalent of GM telling autoworkers that they have to take a pay cut to pay for new factories. By the way, if you don’t know who’s been paying for those new stadiums with their luxury boxes and executive suites over the years, it’s been us, the taxpayers.

The public teat, it appears, has run dry, and what the owners, in effect, are saying to the players is: We had one group of suckers paying for our stadiums for decades. We’ve lost them. Now we need some new suckers to foot the bill—you.

What’s going to happen when the truce runs out next Friday night if no agreement is reached? Both sides have one week to come up with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. If they don’t, there are three possibilities.

1. The first is that the owners choose not to lock the players out and the old CBA remains in effect. Since everything was going just fine under the old agreement, the players and probably at least a few owners would be fine with that. But since the history of labor negotiations in sports almost always centers around how much the union gives back, I wouldn’t bet on that one.

Since the NFL is a living, breathing example of a monopoly, they’re bound to lose a whole bunch of lawsuits.

2. The second possibility is a compromise that both sides might live with. The owners could save some money be getting the union to agree to a reduction of salaries and bonuses for players being drafted out of college. The players might be receptive to this idea; veterans resent the huge contracts given to untested players—such as the $50 million deal Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford got from the St. Louis Rams—and, in theory at least, less money for rookies means more money for veterans.

3. Yet a third scenario is that sometime next Friday, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and his staff, if convinced that the owners will offer no deal that does not involve givebacks, will file papers to decertify the union. This will be followed bright and early Monday morning with a swarm of lawsuits from angry players charging the National Football League with being a monopoly.

Why decertify? Because every time in the history of pro sports that a union has taken an important matter before a court—let’s think back to the most famous of all such cases, when Curt Flood sued Major League Baseball for the right to be a free agent and lost in a 5-3 Supreme Court decision in 1972—the courts have told athletes that their grievances were “A matter for collective bargaining.” But if the union dissolves itself and can no longer represent the players collectively, then the matter cannot be resolved through collective bargaining, and the NFL becomes vulnerable to an antitrust suit.

Since the NFL is a living, breathing example of a monopoly, they’re bound to lose a whole bunch of lawsuits. By the way, the first three players who have volunteered to be plaintiffs in a suit are quarterbacks. You may have heard of them—Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees.

There’s yet another reason why the NFL doesn’t want any of these matters to be decided in court: any suit pushed to a high enough level could result in the owners losing their precious exemption from antitrust laws, the thought of which causes NFL owners to wake up in the middle of the night screaming. Every time a new league has sprung up to challenge the NFL, the older league has prevailed, but each time the competition for players has raised salaries by astronomical amounts. So the competition in the end always works to the players’ advantage.

Clearly these are not the concerns of beleaguered unions such as the state workers and teachers in Wisconsin, but it would be wrong to think that they can’t find inspiration in the stand the NFLPA is making. The tight ends and linebackers might be playing for far richer stakes than the teachers and state workers, but that doesn’t mean the principles in both situations aren’t the same.

Marvin Miller, the chief economist for the steelworkers in their glory years and the man who started the most successful of all sports union, the Major League Baseball Players Association, baseball players union, puts it in perspective.

“Back when we started out, when the average baseball salary was something like $12,500 a year, a lot of sportswriters were happy to call us a union. When we won the right to free agency and salaries shot up to an average of several hundred thousand and then to millions, the same writers told us, ‘Oh, you’re not a union. You’re just a bunch of millionaires.’ Apparently you can’t still be a union in many people’s eyes if you’re successful. That’s a notion that needs badly to be corrected. It’s never occurred to a lot of people that the reason the ballplayers became millionaires in the first place is because they held together as a union.”

Something different has happened in this sports labor confrontation—different from not only any previous football negotiation but also different from anything that’s taken place in basketball, hockey, or even baseball. For the first time, polls indicate both the fans and press now seem to be on the players’ side, or at least seem sympathetic to their cause. This is in large part because union head DeMaurice Smith has made good use of technology in getting the word out. The NFLPA’s website features a Lockout Central that puts all the facts and figures as well as an entire library of key articles on the negotiations at the fingertips of fans and sportswriters. (It’s also a highly effective way of keeping all union members informed.)

What the players do on the football field is exciting, but it’s not heroic. Standing together with your fellow union members when you have millions of dollars and a possible year of your limited playing time—and let’s not forget that the average NFL career is about 3.5 years—at stake may not be real heroism, but it’s a lot closer to the real thing than throwing a football into double coverage or going over the middle for a pass.

Make no mistake: Football players are working men, too, and a win for them is a win for working men and women everywhere.

Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.