The NFL’s Labor Woes: Sudden Death, No Overtime.

Back to the picket line for the players in 2011?

Are you ready for some football?  Well, that’s too bad.  You might have to wait a bit longer than usual before you see any.

After weeks of negotiation, talks broke down between the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) and the league.   The key issue is the same one it usually is in these kinds of situations:  money.   The NFL wants to change the way it’s divvied up with more going to the owners and the players want to keep the things as they are.   There are other issues including a rookie pay scale, more benefits for retired players and the elimination of two pre-season games and expanding the regular season to 18 games.

“The parties have not achieved an overall achievement, federal mediator George Cohen said, “nor have they been able to resolve the strongly held competing positions that separated them on core issues.   No useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time.”

In other words, get out of my office.  You both screwed up. 

Following the breakdown in talks the NFLPA moved to decertify as a union meaning all the players are now non-union workers.   The advantage to the players is it allows them to file lawsuits against the league to prevent a lockout.   The owners of the 32 franchises would be in violation of antitrust laws if they attempted to lockout the players.  Sports Illustrated has a good breakdown of what comes next (hint: it involves a lot of lawyers getting paid).

There’s a lot of legalese involved in all the maneuvering between the NFL owners and players and nobody benefits from this mess but the attorneys.  Both sides will wage a propaganda war in the media with both blaming the other side for  the stalemate and both swearing up and down how much they love the fans and want to get this resolved so we can all get back to playing the games next fall.

Two guys fighting over how to slice up a pie.

Don’t believe a word of it.   The players want to get the best deal for themselves and the owners are the same way.  Neither one cares that much about the fans.  There are no games being played in March.   The fans are irrelevant to the labor impasse between the league and the players.

Whose side am I on?  The only side I have a rooting interest for and that’s my side as a fan of the NFL.  Like 99.9 percent of the fans, I just want to see pro football next September.  That’s all.  I don’t care  how the deal gets done as long as it gets done. 

The standard line has been this is a fight between billionaire owners and millionaire players.  Even President Obama repeated this riff when he replied to a reporter’s question, “You’ve got owners, most of whom are worth close to a billion dollars,” the president said, “You’ve got players who are making millions of dollars.  People are having to cut back, compromise, and worry about making mortgage payments…the two parties should be able to work it out without the President of the United States inventing…For an industry that’s making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out  how to divide it up in a sensible way.

The thing is this isn’t a fight between billionaires and millionaires.  This is a fight between a few billionaires and a lot more millionaire owners vs. a few millionaire players and many other guys pulling down six figures.   The average NFL player makes under $1.8 million, but less than a quarter of the  1,800 players make that much and less than half make a million dollars per season.  The élite players of the leagues like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees make the millions, but that doesn’t mean every other guy in the huddle with them are.

That’s really not the point though.  Whatever the average players makes it’s still a lot more than the average fan does.   There’s probably more sympathy for the players now than the owners, but it this thing drags on into the fall with no resolution in sight, that sympathy will turn into hostility pretty quick.

The last time the NFL went on strike, while the regular players walked picket lines, the league played continued on with replacement players (a.k.a. scab football players) who wore the uniforms of the teams, but mostly played some pretty awful imitation football.   I don’t know if that is a strategy the owners will repeat to feed the habit of football starved fans, but I know I didn’t get the NFL Sunday Ticket package to watch the San Francisco Scabs vs. the St. Louis Strikebreakers.  

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice and that means I’m a damn fool and I won’t get fooled again into watching a bunch of scrubs, wannabees and washouts lumber through what’s being peddled as professional football on a Sunday afternoon.  Later for that.

From the fan’s perspective, none of this labor unrest means much.  Not now at least.  College basketball is nearing its most exciting time with March Madness, the NBA (which has even bigger looming labor problems than the NFL) is lumbering through the last few weeks of its dreary regular season with the playoffs right around the corner and their already warming up for the start of another baseball season for those of you who like that sort of thing.  Hockey?   Who gives a shit about hockey?

There’s still plenty of time for the NFLPA and the NFL to kiss and work this thing out.  Nobody’s fantasy football draft has been effected yet. But pro football is a big deal in this country.   Baseball may be the national pastime, but football is the national sport.   It’s the engine that drives a billion dollar machine and a lot of  others businesses from sports bars to bookies depend on the NFL to make a living.

There’s no pressure on either side to work out their differences quickly and they probably won’t.  But if by the time the leaves start turning brown comes around and there’s still no football in  sight, I wouldn’t be the least surprised if you don’t see Congress and even the president, making unmistakable noises to the NFL and the players, to “get a deal done or we’ll help you get a deal done.”

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