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March 24, 2009

Coming in 2011: The NFL Goes Boom

When it comes to sports, you can usually see calamitous labor disputes coming a few years in advance. Both the 1994-1995 baseball strike that wiped out a World Series and the National Hockey League's 2004-2005 lockout that canceled an entire season were foreseen years earlier, as was the 1998 NBA lockout, which would have canceled a season had the players not given up at the last minute.

Now it's the National Football League's turn. The nation's most popular and profitable sports league, which hasn't had a work stoppage since 1987, is looking at a potential labor showdown in two years, with both sides unhappy with the current arrangement and new union leadership ready for confrontation.

A little history: While baseball's history of labor confrontation has nearly always favored the players, the owners have had much greater success in football. That 1987 strike, which lasted about a month, was plagued by innumerable superstars crossing the picket lines and the players' union eventually calling things off.

The union had some success through the courts in the early 1990s, eventually gaining mostly unfettered free agency for the first time in 1993 (baseball has had it since the late '70s.) But contracts in the league are structured in a way that clearly favors ownership.

Baseball has guaranteed contracts. That means if Ryan Howard signs for three years and $51 million, he's going to get $51 million, regardless of whether he's traded, injured or never hits another home run for the entire three years. Baseball also lacks a salary cap, meaning that a team (i.e., the New York Yankees) can sign as many expensive free agents as they want. The NBA has one and not the other there is a salary cap, but its contracts are ironclad.

The NFL, however, does have a salary cap, and its contracts are far from guaranteed. Sure, signing bonuses are, as are certain other parts of contracts. But contracts signed by NFL players are essentially fictional. This is how Terrell Owens can sign a five-year extension with the Dallas Cowboys and then get cut nine months later. Had T.O. played baseball instead, the team would still be on the hook for that money (as would Owens's two previous teams.) There's also a wonderful thing called the franchise tag, which allows owners to designate one player on the team who is not allowed to leave via free agency.

This is especially important considering that football is the most dangerous to play of the four major sports and has a huge class of ex-players who are paralyzed, penniless or both and plagued by concussions and numerous other injuries that can last a lifetime.

Something is building in the NFL, clearly. After the passage three years ago of a collective bargaining agreement that raised the salary cap significantly, owners opted out of the agreement last year, citing a wish to alter the way the owners share league revenue.

Meanwhile, the union recently elected a new executive director, attorney DeMaurice Smith, to succeed Gene Upshaw, who led the union for decades before his death last summer. Smith, a former law partner of Attorney General Eric Holder, has made noises about asking Congress to look into the league's limited antitrust and tax exemptions. Meanwhile, President Obama's appointment of Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as ambassador to Ireland could serve to take one of the owners' steadiest hands out of the negotiations.

Will all this lead to a work stoppage? The question is two years away, and a lot can happen in that amount of time. The sides could, after all, decide that the timing, during an economic crisis, isn't so great. But in the meantime, enjoy football while you can.


2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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