NFL Labor Dispute 101 with Braham Dabscheck

Just when sports fans were starting to turn their attention away from the NFL labor dispute and toward NCAA March Madness, the fighting between the players and owners has taken center stage once again. And during a time when buzzer-beating underdogs advancing in the NCAA Tournament typically captivates the nation, it’s quite a feat that the NFL has been thrust back into the proverbial water cooler discussions.

San Diego Chargers linebacker Kevin Burnett put the NFL dispute back into spotlight by these comments earlier this week to XX Sports Radio in San Diego about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell:

“Goodell’s full of it. He’s a liar. You’re a blatant liar. ‘It’s our league, it’s we, we love the players, we want the league,’ but what have you done for the players? What have you done, in all honesty, to improve the game, besides fine guys, besides take money away from guys, besides change a game that you’ve never played? … He’s done nothing to improve the game.”

While the players and owners kept comments to themselves during the mediation process, since the NFLPA has decertified, a group of players has filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL and its owners, and the owners have locked out the players, the public verbal sparring has begun once again.

But for those without a law degree or intimate knowledge of player associations, sport leagues, and labor relations, much of what the two sides are bickering about can be a bit confusing. That’s why Fitness Information Technology has turned to Braham Dabscheck for a primer we’ll call NFL Labor Relations 101. Dabscheck, a senior fellow in the Faculty of Law at the University of Melbourne in Australia, is an industrial relations scholar who has conducted research on professional team sports for nearly four decades. He is also the author of a new release, Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game.

Q: With the players’ union decertifying and 10 players filing an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL owners, who as a result locked out the players, which side holds more power at this point?

Dabscheck: “There will be different answers for the short- (off-season) and long-term (when next season should begin). A lockout is an aggressive act by employers attempting to force workers/players to accept their terms and conditions. In the short run it will negatively affect the players. Once the season is scheduled to start, if the lockout continues, the players don’t buckle, and there is no play, that will hurt the owners more. Why? Because they will obtain no revenue. I feel at this stage both sides are testing each other; wanting to see who will blink first. This may suggest that the dispute will drag on to just prior to the new season. If the players haven’t blinked there will be internal pressure from within the owners to lower their eyelids.”

Q: What exactly is an antitrust lawsuit?

Dabscheck: “Owners/leagues introduced rules like the draft, trading, salary caps etc to control players. Such rules (with the exception of baseball) have been found to be in breach of the Sherman Anti Trust Act 1890 (see my chapters 3 and 4). An antitrust suit would be where players challenge such IMPOSED rules as being in violation of such legislation. A way for owners/league to protect such rules from antitrust action is to have them endorsed in a collective bargaining agreement with players/players’ association. This is why the NFLPA has decertified as a Union under the National Labor Relations Act. It removes such protection.”

Q: Is the decertification and lawsuit just a power move or do the players really intend to see the lawsuit run its course?

Dabscheck: “It is both. It is a power move that opens up the owners’ revenue sharing plans, which by definition is a collusive agreement to antitrust action. It is the major bargaining chip at their disposal. To back down would be tantamount to throwing in the towel. The problem for the NFLPA is for players to hold firm. It looks like the action is well supported by players, especially the stars who have the most to lose if the NFL wins.”

Q: Aside from locking out the players, which they have now done, is there anything else the owners can do to try to gain the upper hand in this dispute?

Dabscheck: “If the dispute goes on long enough they would have the option of looking for replacement players, as they have done in the past and as American corporations do in other disputes. This will help to raise the temperature. Fans and commentators may regard this as a devaluation of the NFL product. In short, this is a tactic that has to be played most carefully.”

Q: Will both sides continue to negotiate even though a group of players is suing the owners and the owners have locked out the players?

Dabscheck: “Yes. Negotiations will occur formally and informally. Also, various intermediaries will be active behind the scenes.”

Q: Can you give us your best projection of how this will play out and how, if at all, the 2011 NFL season will be affected?

Dabscheck: “This is a tough question. It looks like the owners want a fight. They may or may not be solid on this. The NFL has experienced much growth and success in recent years. The owners will feel less inclined to fight when they start to experience costs (loss of revenue). Assuming the players don’t capitulate, the 2011 season may be disrupted. If the owners (or enough of them) perceive that the players aren’t likely to cave in and the use of replacement players will cause different types of problems, they owners will have an incentive to lower their eyelids.”

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