Thursday, May 05, 2011

Will there be football in 2011?

The UC Berkeley Labor Center held an interesting panel on Wednesday about the current lockout of players by owners of the National Football League.

William B. Gould IV is a Professor of Law at Stanford and served as chair of the National Labor Relations Board during Bill Clinton's presidency. He took a shot at explaining the current legal situation in which the player's union, the NFL Players Association, has dissolved itself so as to bring to bear anti-trust law on the owners.

The NFL is a classic monopoly from the point of view of players -- where else can these extraordinary athletes sell their skills? (Canada barely counts.) The little group of men who own the teams agree among themselves to rules about who can play where and under what circumstances they can offer a guy more money to go somewhere else. Hence there is the draft and limited free agency for players who survive in the league long enough. The old collective bargaining agreement contained the union's assent to these rules -- this agreement with their workers was what made it legal for the NFL owners to operate as a monopoly that restrains competition. Otherwise anti-trust law might have broken the NFL up.

When the owners decided to cancel the collective bargaining agreement a year early, start siphoning off TV revenue in a dubiously legal deal with the networks, and push to pay the players a smaller percentage of revenue while expecting them to play more games, and then locked the players out when they said "hell no", the union dissolved itself. The players essentially said: deal with anti-trust law now, guys; your whole operation is an illegal racket if we aren't a union.

So now the NFL labor issues are in the courts. For the moment, a Missouri federal judge has ruled for the players, ordering an end to the lockout -- but the whole mess is on appeal and could bounce around for a long time.

As Gould said:

This is a labor lawyers' smorgasbord.

Scott Fujita is a former UC football player, a linebacker, who has had a 10 year NFL career. He's currently with the Cleveland Browns. Previously he did a stint with the New Orleans Saints during the years when the team helped the city come together after Katrina and won the 2009 Super Bowl. He sure does credit to Cal, speaking articulately and thoughtfully.

A member of the (now-dissolved) NFLPA's executive committee, he sounded like a lot of unionized workers in disputes with management everywhere: he wants some respect. He describes sitting across from owners in bargaining sessions and having to listen to Jerry Jones (Dallas owner) talk about the players and league as "product."

Dammit, we're not 'product' -- we are men!

The negotiations (now broken off since owners locked out the players and the union dissolved) turned on a lot of stuff that seems technical to outsiders (partly because labor law makes all negotiations seem mystifying.) The owners pled poverty; the players said "show us the books"; the owners refused, probably meaning there's no way they'd look anything but profitable. Players point out that careers in the league average 3.5 years, not enough to get a pension or even ongoing health coverage (that they pay for themselves).

But really this dispute seems to be about the tendency of people who have a good thing going to let the cancer of greed overrun all good sense. At the moment, the owners and players split football revenues about 50-50. The game is wildly popular, profitable and getting richer every year. But the owners want a bigger share. According to Fujita, they'd like to push the player share down to 25 percent. Meanwhile, this generation of players more and more understands that they are risking their bodies and brains for a mere few years of income and glory and aren't about to take it.

Fujita insisted that what makes this round different from previous NFL labor disputes is that the superstars are on board; we see Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady sticking up for the more anonymous mass of the players. (Shamefully, in 1987, 49er-great Joe Montana was a prominent scab.) As a player rep, Fujita spends his days keeping in touch with the players on Facebook and Twitter, encouraging people to manage their money well, making sure they understand the complicated ins and outs of the legal morass.

"The players aren't going to cave!"

The NFL owners seem awfully determined as well.

The trouble is, when your business model has elements of a racket to begin with, it's hard not to believe you can squeeze out a bit more somehow. For all its current success, big football shows signs of being in trouble over time. Will parents continue to let their kids play as we learn more about brain injuries? When will college athletes who are exploited by a system that seldom gives them either an education or a job at the next level rebel against their strange servitude?

And when you live outside the law, it takes maturity to govern yourselves. Football owners are a small clique of super-arrogant and entitled rich guys who all think they know best. Yet keeping their monopoly running requires them to exercise self-restraint and cooperate with each other for the good of the league. They are not the kind of people who understand that sometimes cooperation and sharing makes for success all around -- while that is exactly what football teaches all but the most outstanding team members.

Fujita summarized the conflict this way:

The owners can't agree how to share among themselves, so they want to take more from the players.

It's hard to see how this will get solved without more hurt, mostly felt by newer players. We may not see a football season this fall.

1 comment:

doug julin said...

"they toss a nickel around like it was a manhole cover"
Now who said that about who?

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