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March 24, 2009
Coming in 2011: The NFL
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.
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