The Coming Labor War in the NFL


Original source: Edge of Sports

When Rush Limbaugh was unceremoniously dumped in his efforts to secure a minority share of the St. Louis Rams, he may have been little more than collateral damage in a brewing collision between NFL owners and the NFL Players Association. After the union raised objections, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell squashed Limbaugh like a waterbug. Given the potential conflict brewing between NFL management and labor, Rush was a public relations disaster Goodell could hardly afford.

The collective bargaining agreement is due to expire at the end of the 2010 season and all signs are that an era of labor/management partnership is not at hand. As Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King wrote this week, 'It's going to get ugly. There's better than a 50-percent chance, I believe, of some work stoppage in 2011, as incredibly golden-goose-killing as that sounds.'

The idea of a labor stoppage could revive a rack of memories the owners want best buried. During the 1980s, the NFL was the site of two of the most bitter sports strikes/lockouts in history. In 1987, when 'scab football' was played by 'the replacements' in front of half empty stadiums, locked out players in some NFL cities brought rifles to their picket lines. In others, they physically assaulted the scab players that attempted to break the lines. In today's 24-hour sports media environment, the idea of round-the-clock picket line drama, is nothing the owners want.

The negotiations also occur within the context of a new study showing that retired NFL players suffer from advanced Alzheimer's disease and other brain trauma at five times the national rate among men over 50. For men under 50, the number is 19 times the national rate. Congress held hearings in the subject last week and both the union and the owners are going to be pressed to explain why so little has been done for so long. For years the owners have spoken about concussions the way the tobacco industry used to bleat about lung cancer. They would say 'research has not shown' that football causes the attendant brain injuries. Those days are done. Both the union and owners will be pressed to address this during the upcoming negotiations.

But that will require a spirit of cooperation that may not exist as negotiations are brought to a boil. The issues that separate them seem minor: NFLPA President Smith and the union want more financial transparency. The owners want to dial back concessions they made in the last CBA and get a larger share of the revenue back.

But the two main sources of tension aren't on the bargaining table: The first is the economy. The NFL, long thought to be recession proof is feeling the squeeze. In the best of times, football is a blue-collar game at white-collar prices. But this year attendance has dropped, in no small part because ticket prices remain prohibitive even amidst the crisis. A family of four, purchasing modest concessions, will now pay over $400. The result is that empty seats dot stadiums around the country. This leads to 'blackouts' where games aren't broadcast in local markets. In 2008, only nine games were blacked out during the entire season. In 2009 Jacksonville alone has already announced that they will have to blackout eight. The league will want to cut costs in this climate and the union will feel a need to hold the line. The golden goose has lost a bit of its luster.

It's worth noting that the NFL is only highest profile example of the economic crisis pervading the world of sports. The National Football League's red-headed stepchild, the Arena Football League, had to cancel its last season. In 2009, 21 of the 30 Major League Baseball teams saw attendance drops. The Ladies Professional Golf Association has seen their corporate sponsorships flee and the Women's National Basketball Association eliminated roster spots in preparation for a downturn.,

The National Basketball Association in particular has looked vulnerable in the current climate. The league took out a $175 million line of credit to aid financially failing teams even though Commissioner David Stern tried to spin this as a sign of the league's health, which was a little bit sad. The NBA also has contract negotiations after the 2010 season which could make the NFL battle look tepid by comparison. It's this dire economy which stands as the primary reason labor peace won't be coming to the NFL.

While the dire economy is the primary reason to bet against labor peace in the NFL, another good one is new Players Association president DeMaurice Smith. The NFLPA is generally seen as the weakest of the sports unions because it's the only league without guaranteed contracts. Smith, a connected Capitol Hill lawyer, was elected in March following the sudden death of Gene Upshaw, wants to show that despite not being a former player he will be strong for his players. Upon assuming leadership he said, 'There isn't a day where I don't hope for peace, but at the same time, there isn't a day where we won't prepare for war.'

Smith has told ESPN that he has called upon his players to put aside 25 percent of their salaries over the next two years. 'I look at the way in which it looks like we're moving to this lockout, and first and foremost, we have to be in a position where our young men are in a position to be able to take care of themselves and their families,' he said.

It's this combative stance, along with declining revenues that signal to many an NFL watcher that the golden goose might soon be cooked.