Filleting the golden goose
It’s not even an argument to say the NFL is the popular spectator sport in America right now. The ratings for the past two Super Bowls have been the first and second most watched TV programs of all time.
The NFL is a $9 billion industry, a figure higher than the nominal GDP of countries like Burkina Faso, The Bahamas, Laos, Mongolia, Haiti and Nicaragua. The NFL is the 125th largest economy in the world.
And yet, the NFL owners and the NFL Player’s Association – the union that represents the players – can’t figure out how to divide that $9 billion, likely leading to the owners locking the players out, possibly putting the 2011 season at risk.
The legal complexities of the ongoing labor squabble is too lengthy and complex for me to explain but the bottom line is this: the owners hate the current collective bargaining agreement and want a new deal more favorable for them.
In other words, the billionaires want more billions, instead of splitting revenues with the players after $1 billion; the owners want to take the first $2 billion off the top before sharing.
The players basically want to keep the current CBA agreement, with additional changes to rules involving player safety.
The owners’ plan, as it traditionally is in sports labor disputes, is to wait the players out, let them start missing game checks or let a season get cancelled, like it did for the NHL Player’s Association, and then get everything you want when the players come back groveling. Billionaires, after all, win the numbers game over the millionaires.
From the public’s point of view, I’m sure most people don’t care. They just want the two sides to settle their differences and get back on the field. How could the players and owners kill the golden goose that is the NFL? How can people fight over $9 billion? There’s enough for everyone, right?
Of course, once this dispute drags on, inevitably the public will start siding with the owners. After all, people think, these guys are getting paid handsomely to play a kids’ game. The average NFL fan thinks, ‘I’d do what they do for free!’
It is a weird condition of the American psyche these days to blame labor, especially powerful unions like the NFLPA, in its disputes with management. You’d think a people with a Libertarian streak like Americans would be like “Superfly” – have a plan to stick it to The Man.
But we are more authoritarian than we think, and so when millionaire athletes fight with billionaire owners, most Americans, surprisingly, take the billionaire owners’ side. And they would be wrong. Dead wrong.
Modern labor disputes, like this one and the one that wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season, come about for one reason and one reason only: the owners need to be saved from themselves. They cry poor when ridiculous contracts they doled out turn out to be duds. The players ask to see the books, and of course the owners don’t show the books. Why? Cause they’re full of crap. The owners just want more money. Plain and simple.
To illustrate my point, I’ll do the impossible: defend Washington Redskins defensive tackle/massive free agent bust Albert Haynesworth.
Now, is Haynesworth pretty much the poster child for the spoiled modern athlete? Absolutely. He’s a dog, a big baby and his lying-on-the-ground routine against the Philadelphia Eagles in a nationally televised game was a disgrace to the once-proud uniform of the Washington Redskins. He’s clashed with coaches, teammates, opposing players, the league office, civilians and the law on more than one occasion.
That being said, everybody who followed football during Haynesworth’s days with the Tennessee Titans knew that he was a guy who could dog it. That he had trouble with motivation. That he had some real character issues.
And Redskins owner Daniel Snyder still gave Haynesworth $100 million. Nobody put a gun to his head and made him do it. Haynesworth took what some rich sucker was willing to offer. He knew his window to make that kind of money was short, and he had to cash in while he could.
My point is the players are not at fault here. They take the risk out there on the field. Owners like Snyder or Dallas’ Jerry Jones or Baltimore’s Steve Bischotti don’t have to go out there and take hits from guys like James Harrison, who has said he hits people to hurt them. Or get hit by a guy like Ray Lewis, who was named by the NFL Network as one of the 10 most feared tacklers of all-time and once said that when he hits someone he wants to take a piece of their soul. Or get blocked by a guy like Miami’s Jake Long, who stands 6’7 and weighs 320 pounds.
And that’s just part of the job hazard. Unlike all the other major team sports, NFL players don’t have guaranteed contracts. They could be cut at anytime. Their careers could end on any given play. The average career in the profession is less than three years.
But it’s the owners who want more money, who are willing to filet and deep-fry the goose that lays the golden egg because, well, they can. They have other businesses where they make the majority of their money. Many of them play in taxpayer-funded stadiums where the owners get all the concessions and parking money.
Forgive the players for being a bit skeptical of the owners crying poor. They simply want to protect what they have, to keep the status quo, which has helped the NFL become the biggest spectator sport in America. Would they like a little more? Sure. The difference is, the players seem to realize they’re sitting on the golden goose and are willing to negotiate a price. Meanwhile, the owners’ price is more.
The sad part is the owners will end up winning this fight. Like the emperor Commodus in the movie “Gladiator,” the owners will take this opportunity to break the union, get everything they want and more and then tell the players, “Am I not merciful?”