The Freak Show: Football Follies

The NFL Players Association and the NFL owners are at the negotiating table trying to work out a new labor contract. Why would this be a topic for a political column? Not only has the federal government gotten involved in mediating the agreement, but both the owners and players have been lobbying politicians to try and gain favor with the legislative bodies.

Let’s forgo the argument, appropriate though it might be, that politicians should concentrate on more serious issues than games, whether it is baseball players are taking steroids or how the NFL millionaires and billionaires divide up their treasures. It’s a fact of life that they get involved and they greatly influence the conduct of sports leagues, since they hold the key to a successful sports enterprise, the anti-trust exemption which allows teams to hold the exclusive rights to a player until such time as a collective bargaining agreement allows free agency.

With that in mind, players and owners representatives have been meeting with a federal mediator. The services are offered by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, NFL owners donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past election as individual contributors and via their political action committee, NFL PAC. The NFL PAC has spent more than $341,000 among 82 federal candidates, and $100,000 on party committees.

Individual NFL players have also contributed to candidates, and while their contributions are much less than those of owners, they’ve been busy using their name recognition and notoriety to send public letters to mayors and governors in NFL locales expressing concern that the owners, by locking the players out, are going to cause severe economic hardship for the cities where NFL teams play, in loss of revenue, visitors, and jobs. They are asking the politicians to pressure the owners to settle with them.

Any work stoppage will affect ushers, concession stand attendants, grounds crews, security, waitresses, hotel food suppliers, parking attendants and tax revenues in the affected cities. But before you think the players make a convincing argument, keep in mind that when the players last went on strike, it was they who didn’t consider the plight of local minimum wage worker. One of the lasting images was that of a player outside the stadium where the games were going on with replacement players, imploring the parking attendants to honor their strike and not work. Do you think if the parking lot attendants went on strike the players would honor it? Not a chance, since that also happened a few years earlier and no player even spoke out about it, let alone refused to cross their picket line. They drove right through without giving it a second thought.

The dispute, as it always does, comes down to how to split up the vast sums of money the league brings in, which is currently about $9 billion per season. The owners want a 51-49 percent split, giving the players 49 percent after taking two billion off the top for league use, whether it be administration, stadium building and improvements, advertising and public relations, etc. They also want two additional regular season games. The players want to keep the status quo, where they have been receiving 60 percent and the owners 40 percent, after $1 billion is taken off the top for league expenses.

I’ll tell you why both sides are missing the boat. The owners, by locking out the players, are going to lose in the court of public opinion. They give the players the right to claim, “We want to play.” They would do much better to do what they did when the players last went on strike; to continue playing, using replacement players if necessary. Public opinion was clearly on the side of the owners then, who could claim that these highly paid players chose not to play, and it wasn’t their doing that kept them from it.

The owners also are doing the wrong thing in pushing for extra games. One of the appealing things about the NFL is that with such a limited number of games, they all have great importance. With extra games, that’s not the case. Fans that used to plan their lives around games will be more inclined to not worry about missing a game. Additionally, more games will mean more injuries, and when star players go down, that increases fan indifference. While they think two more games equals more revenue, they are blind to the fact that they are hurting the long-term prosperity of the game.

The players, meanwhile, are also barking up the wrong tree. “Show me the money,” as the famous line from Jerry Maguire goes. They seem solely interested in the financial split. They claim that with the short career span of NFL players, and the risk of injury, they need to be well compensated. I don’t deny that, but losing a season for these rich players to get a little richer is hardly worth the risk of losing everything. What they need to be demanding is something that baseball players have, namely, guaranteed contracts.

With such a high risk of injury, if any athlete needs a guaranteed contract, it’s football players. But believe it or not, they don’t have that; if a player is hurt, or doesn’t perform up to the level the team anticipates, he can be cut from the team. If a baseball player is let go, he still has to be paid. That would be worth fighting for, and even striking, for NFL players.

But barring a last minute miracle, it looks as though the owners will lock out the players this week, and the dispute is likely to last until August, when the pressure will be so great that one side will give in, or risk losing the season.

The players are also considering decertifying the union, which would allow them to challenge the NFL’s salary cap, player draft and other free agency restrictions. The reason they need to decertify the union to do that is because the law states that collective bargaining overrides those issues, so the only way to challenge them is if there is no union to bargain for them. The owners, of course, would challenge the fact that there is no union, saying it’s a charade to skirt current law. The whole issue would be decided by a judge.

Either way, it comes down to the millionaires and billionaires fighting over money, which comes from the fans. We need a third party in these negotiations… a fan representative, who would call for each side to take less, and lower ticket prices so the average Joe can get in to see a game, and televised games could have less stoppages for commercials. Not too likely!