The uncertain relationship between the NFL and its players’ union will hover over the entire 2010 football season. A resolution likely won’t happen before Super Bowl XLV has ended, primarily because neither side has a reason to roll up their sleeves and get a deal done over the balance of the year.
In the interim, some of the various issues periodically will percolate to the surface. So let’s look at 10 of the factors that will influence that situation -- and that will from time to time interrupt our collective focus on football.
When does the clock strike 12?
In any labor negotiation, no deal can be negotiated until both sides are prepared to hammer out an agreement. As a preliminary matter, this requires both sides to agree to the deadline for getting something done.
In 2006, the current labor deal emerged just before the last year with a salary cap began. The league had hoped to avoid the strict salary-cap rules that would have applied in the last season before the cap went away, and the union agreed to treat that moment as midnight, possibly because former NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw realized that an uncapped year contained many hidden drawbacks for the players.
This time around, the parties haven’t reached a consensus as to the point at which the proverbial pumpkin pops up in place of the chariot that has carried the golden goose through nearly two decades of labor peace.
Until that happens, neither side will inch toward a bottom-line position, making it much harder to reach an accord.
Growing the pie, shrinking the slice
The financial struggle between the league and the union boils down to a simple proposition. The NFL wants the players to shrink their slice of the total monetary haul, and the NFL hopes to use its larger share in the hopes of cooking an even bigger pie.
The current deal gives the players 59.6 cents of every dollar generated, after taking roughly $1 billion off the top to cover a portion of the league’s expenses. As a practical matter, the league wants to maintain the percentage, after taking even more off the top.
The rookie wage scale
With the players and the teams enjoying unprecedented financial success, neither side has the public’s sympathy. But that won’t stop either side from trying to generate some.
For the league, a desire to reel in the Powerball-style windfall paid to the players taken at the top of the draft resonates with the average fan. And so the league wisely will continue to bang that drum.
The push to implement a rookie wage scale also resonates with veteran players who realize that the millions wasted on busts like JaMarcus Russell could be devoted to players who have shown that they can perform at the NFL level. The ability of some top-10 draft picks (like Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald) to leverage big rookie deals into veteran contracts that set a new bar for players at the same position makes the current system somewhat more attractive to players, but truly great players will continue to receive huge veteran contracts regardless of whether they were drafted at the top of round one or the bottom of round seven.
The American needle case
When a landmark antitrust lawsuit arising from the NFL’s exclusive apparel deal migrated toward the U.S. Supreme Court, the NFLPA feared that a victory by the league on the question of whether it represents a single entity in licensing deals (making it immune from antirust claims) would be used against the union if it eventually decertifies and sues the league under the antitrust laws as a collection of individual employees.
The union’s fears arose from the reality that, when the players tried that tactic after the failed 1987 strike, the league advanced the same single-entity argument.
Once the NFL lost via a decision that somehow prompted a bitterly partisan Court to agree unanimously on the outcome, the league claimed (a couple of hours after scraping its jaw off the table) that the ruling has no relevance to the labor situation.
But it does. The union has preserved the ability to file a viable antitrust action.
In the end, that might be the best way to forge a new labor deal. Indeed, the current contract arose directly from the settlement of the last antitrust case filed against the league by the union.
The NFL’s possible strategy
The NFLPA believes that the league intends to lock out the players upon expiration of the current labor deal. The league’s more likely approach consists of bargaining to impasse and, under federal labor law, imposing the terms of the final offer made by management as the new rules.
Under that scenario, the NFL essentially would be saying to the players, “You’re welcome to continue under our terms, or you can go on strike. Your choice.”
Though plenty of lawsuits and other claims would unfold in court, football would remain, just like it did after the players sued for antitrust after the 1987 strike.
In early June, Colts center Jeff Saturday called on both sides to “put their egos to the side” and move toward working out a deal.
The problem to date seems to arise not from ego but from a desire to curry favor with the average fan. At times both sides have mischaracterized the nuances of the negotiations, presumably in the hopes of finding a way to persuade the press or the American people to pick a side.
And so the union points to broadcast contracts that provide ongoing revenue during a work stoppage, suggesting that the league will cancel the 2011 season in order cash in. And the league creates the impression that the teams aren’t making enough money, while keeping the books welded shut.
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