A Poster Boy Work Stoppage

by Bert Bartlett

It’s not even May, and fans everywhere have had a belly full of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement impasse, at least the legalese aspects to it. When the league released it’s 2011 schedule, alluringly, the Saints were penciled in to play the Packers in Green Bay on prime time to open the season, in a match-up of the last two Super Bowl champs. Given the state of the union in the NFL, it is a more than a possibility that game will not take place.

Unlike the strikes of 1982 and 1987, fan sentiment in this billionaire vs. millionaire conflict seems to be on the side of the players. This stalemate began when the owners opted out of the existing 60/40 percent gross revenue split, thinking the majority was too much for the players. When  Gene Upshaw, former head of the players union, now deceased, negotiated this split in the now expired CBA, he told close associates, that this ration was a good deal for the players – and should never be sacrificed. The litmus test is on. We’re going to find out if it will.

The initial issue in this impasse was that the owners claimed they need more of the revenue pie to help pay for all the new stadiums around the league, about $1 billion of the league’s annual $9 billion in revenue, or 11%. Rightly, the players wondered why they should be required to help pay for stadiums that will be around long after they are gone. After all, they aren’t in the real estate business. And the owners have not offered to opened their books to them to explain, which is also their right. If the players retained 60% of the gross of the owner proposed reduced amount, their slice of the pie is about $600 million less, or $18.75 million per team. On a 53 man roster, that equates to a pay cut of $353,000 per player per year on a simple line basis (simple line is illustrative only; player compensation is a caste system and varies greatly within a team; reported salaries from the Saints for 2010 ranged from $9.8 MM for Drew Brees, to $320K for Chris Ivory. The average salary for an NFL player was about $770K in 2009. A cut would be most felt among the rank and file player). With the league’s popularity, and profitability, at an all time high, naturally the players wondered, “why us”?   

But the players’ lot is hardly under duress, and certainly isn’t a “slave state”, which star Viking running back Adrian Petersen stupidly remarked about a month ago, which got some press. Nobody held a gun to his head to sign the terms of a five year, $40.5 million dollar contract as a rookie. The main reason he is ticked is that his base salary was $1.140 MM last season, and the final year of his contract was set to pay him $7.720 MM in 2011.

As has always been the case, it is former NFL players who have real woes. Players from earlier eras to the 90’s, many of them long time stars who raised the platform of the NFL, have miniscule, pocket money pensions, compared to what players from more recent times receive. And there are horror stories about players with permanent injuries and disabilities that got, and continue to get, the short end of the stick on health coverage. The long term effects of concussions is only now coming to light. Even though no football player has ever put pads on not understanding the risks, everybody seems to agree that the league’s old timers  “need to be better taken care of”, but nobody wants to pay for it. This has been a perpetual problem in the league’s collective bargaining for decades. NFL players receive full pensions at age 55 (thought they can tap into it earlier). Coincidentally, age 55 is the life term expectancy of offensive linemen in the NFL according to one recent study, compared to 77 for the general population.  

Petersen’s comment did reverberate with some legitimate shortcomings about free agency. Since it started in ‘93, it has been more bust than boom for players – and the league. For every Reggie White, who successfully switched teams (Eagles to Packers) for big bucks without sacrificing performance, there are handfuls of free agents who played into the owners’ fear of “fat and happy” players with too much guaranteed money that proved not to be worth it. The Washington Redskins have a graveyard of them, including Dana Stubblefield, Deion Sanders, and most recently, Albert Haynesworth. The rules of free agency are complicated, but the main problem with it is that acquiring clubs of restricted free agents have to sacrifice too much in future draft picks to their former teams, which has effectively frozen the market, and has the appearance of collusion, though reality is draft pick compensation is just too expensive for most general managers to swallow. In a new labor deal, if they are wise, the players should insist that free agency gets much more in balance.

Some perceptions about the college draft are laced with anomalies. There is voiced opposition to top draft picks receiving ever increasing, huge amounts of guaranteed money, having never played a down, while proven veterans are left to scramble for what’s equitable. But a pay scale for newly drafted college players, as proposed by some, is against the very grain that the players supposedly covet: the capitalism of true free agency, i.e. that players are entitled to get whatever the market will bear. The arguments about proper college player compensation make for peculiar bedfellows. If a pay scale is instituted, some will attribute it to the Obama administration.

What is unique about this work stoppage, compared to the two in the 80’s, is who are the poster boys for it. In past strikes, signs outside training facilities were held aloft reading “We Are The Game”, while most stars who had the most money to lose sat at home and winced, hoping the thing would just get over with as soon as possible. Joe Montana crossed the picket line in ‘87, to play with scabs and the San Francisco “Phoney Niners”. Stars like John Elway and Dan Marino were glad he did, paving the way for them to return. The public relations spin was that many star players came back before the troops “for the good of the game” and to show “their allegiance to the fans”, which of course, was absolute hogwash. Pro football players aren’t sacrificial lambs, though they inevitably feel like it during the rigors of two a day practices in the summer.   

Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning being lead plaintiffs in an antitrust suit against the owners (on the heels of the players’ union de-certifying itself for legal reasons) resemble honor students and teacher’s pets at school, folding their arms and performing a sit-in outside the principal’s office. Their leadership sends a strong signal to the owners. Though these marquee players stand to lose the most in a work stoppage, they will be taken care of when things get settled. Unlike in past strikes, after it is over, these teams cannot conveniently “go in another direction” by releasing these three particular pro-union players, for fear of a fan revolt. In the 80’s, many a solid, proven veteran’s career was prematurely ended from post strike resentment (football has long been fertile ground for sophomoric “good guy, bad guy” stereotypes, at any level). Being a player’s union rep on a team was a career suicide mission. Those affected did not sue for employee discrimination because the subjectivity of talent evaluation in the game did not allow for proof of their case, and to do so during their remaining playing days would have further blackballed them from getting a job with another team.

Yes, in past strikes, the owners as reflected through the actions of their general managers and coaches, played nasty – after the fact. The vindication was carried on by the media and reached Hall Of Fame proportions when John Mackey, one of the first great tight ends to play the position in the 60’s when with the Colts, was not elected to the shrine until this year, only about a quarter of a century late, due to his pro union stance as a player. At cocktail parties today, it’s unlikely that the owners cannot cannot exchange amicable words with their poster boy employees, but in this case, business is business.  

Round 1 of the legal volley has gone to the players with the lifting of the owners’ lockout by a federal judge in Minneapolis. It remains to be seen whether the courts can force the owners to go back to business as usual. Irregardless, players are holdouts until they agree to a new deal, and holdouts can only last as long as their leadership allows, and by whatever interim support mechanisms are in place. Players won’t be content with the pay rates of unemployment from theIr respective states. Traditionally, the principles that start strikes become fleeting expediencies when the lost money starts to hurt. And it’s going to hurt the players more.

Already, there are grumblings that DeMaurice Smith, the head of the now technically defunct union, has not best representing the players.The poster boys won’t starve waiting for this impasse to end, but for how long and for how much will the rank and file afford to stand behind them? Have the QB’S proven to be true team guys in taking this stance?  Will they have to sell their peers to continue to hold out, until they get what they feel is right?  Or will they audible and cave in, too?  Or will the courts solve it?  And when? This is the drama of the 2011 CBA stalemate. Brees, Brady, and Manning are truly under center.     

It’s hard for the general public to get excited about how many beans go to either side of the table when they get divvied up again, which they will. The two sides could settle to play for an interim period without a new long term agreement. Whatever the dollars are will be compensation for players remaining, on average, in the top of the top 1% of the income levels in this country, which does nothing for ordinary folks when it comes to feeling the price of gas, the unemployment rate, or the stuck in the mud economy. Ironically, if games are lost, many of the fans’ resentment will be because the escapism from day to day doldrums that the NFL provides them, won’t be available, due to a malcontent work force, which the general populace can relate to.  

As the situation winds it’s way through the courts, the ad nausea is having to listen to stuff in the media like that the solution is to resume collective bargaining at the negotiating table, ultimate lip service, given how much time was ahead of the expiration of this CBA.  One thing owners and players have always banked on in past work stoppages is the fans’ unyielding support of the games when they return. One wonders, as they struggle to come to their centses, if this time they are making a premature assumption, particularly if it drags on into late September, which is anticipated here that it will.      

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The NFL draft is about to take place as if it is business as usual. Mock drafts are available everywhere. The Saints’ glaring needs are speed and athleticism at the outside linebacker and defensive end positions.      

  

  

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