NFL Labor Dispute 101 with Braham Dabscheck

March 18, 2011

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.”


NFL’s 18-game season: 8 reasons to think twice about it

October 8, 2010

Hines Ward has a point. The veteran Steelers’ receiver believes that he might be the “last double-digit guy” to play in the NFL, meaning that once the season is extended to 18 games, most players are going to retire from football before they reach a decade of playing time. Ward, like other NFL athletes, usually has a difficult time finishing out the season—the wear and tear from frequent blocking, tackling, and running can take a mean toll throughout the year for any NFL athlete. ESPN.com mentioned that Ward’s shoulders ache badly with every pass reception, and his legs take heavy wear and tear on artificial turf surfaces, not to mention he gets tackled by some of the world’s biggest and fastest athletes.

Although the proposal for adding two games includes taking away two games from the preseason, there can be no denying the vast differences in pre-season and regular season play when it comes to taking a toll on first-string, first-rate players like Ward.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and a large proportion of league owners want the extended season, because, as Goodell says, it “would give fans more games worth watching and eliminate some that are next to meaningless.” Also, it must be noted, the fans aren’t so crazy about the preseason, either.

But let’s call this for what it is: Money. I can guarantee you Goodell isn’t supporting this because of the soft spot in his heart for the fans, and just as well the players certainly want to get paid the most they can get. As the NFL has become more commercialized and organized throughout the years, the seasons have increased in length—in the 1950s, schedules were 12 games long; in the 60s it grew to 14 games. With a longer stretch of 18 games, we’re likely to see a lot of extra money changing hands—through TV channel deals, advertisements, ticket sales, concessions—so far at the expense of the players. But should we care? They, after all, are making hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, and they are playing to the wishes of the fan base. At least the players don’t seem to be hiding behind the pretense that they are only concerned about injuries and time on the road.

“I might get in trouble, I might get a call, but it’s all about money,” said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. “If you want guys to play 18 games, there is some ways guys are going to have to be compensated for that.” Clark also made a good observation when he said that the NFL is contradicting itself after levying new rules to protect players from concussions and injuries, yet is now pushing to put players into a new realm of injury threats.

Steelers’ Charlie Batch has the dubious distinction of being the team’s player representative, and he, according to ESPN, is opposed to expansion because of the risk of injury, something injury-prone Batch knows well. But even he, like others, admits the concept of a longer season in the 21st century will be a new beast. But what can we expect to change? What should we look for?

1. Injuries will rise: Yes, there might be an equal amount of games, but seriously folks, preseason football is like watching college lacrosse—mildly entertaining, but in the end nobody outside of the lacrosse community really cares. In the NFL pre-season we get to watch for new talent, unused quarterbacks, and third stringers trying to make the cut, but without the fun and fanfare of a good intercollegiate game. Lackluster performances by the first-tiered starters mar the action, and the heat is dialed way down, compared to the spine-shaking hits and daring passes into double tomahawk coverage that accompanies play later on in the season–when it counts.

2. The hidden talent dynamic will shift: According to technews.com, Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday,the Colts’ quarterback and center, believe an 18-game season could work severely against undrafted rookies that are trying to make the team. Indianapolis is one of the league’s best at discovering overlooked and hidden talent, and could very well suffer from the advantages of pre-season rookie jubilees. Untested and unproven players will have fewer opportunities to showcase their talents in real games, and will therefore miss out on valuable roster positions.

3. The roster size will expand: As players become injured, strained, and fatigued, someone will have to fill the gaps, so we should anticipate larger drafting pools and a deeper dip into the well of new talent.

4. Network TV wars: This depends on how the NFL sorts out the bye weeks. They might altogether lose the bye weeks (in order to ratchet out a more fluid, regular season schedule), and fuse a schedule that lands games on Thursdays and Saturdays, which might cause the divorce rate to skyrocket. Does this mean we’re going to have more regular games going to cable coverage? It’s already a nasty smack against the blue collar Joes and Janes that can’t afford to watch ESPN for some Monday Night Football action. It just ain’t American.

5. The NCAA might get angry: If games are pushed into Saturday, we’ll be watching two bloated, cumbersome, money-hogging juggernauts slapping each other upside the helmet for financial rights to the Saturday piece of football pie. Think about it. Texas/OU’s Red River Rivalry, or the Cowboy/Redskins game? Some fans will probably spontaneously explode, or fantasy football players won’t have enough time to scout players prior to their fantasy drafts.

6. Losing teams will hurt more financially: By the NFL’s statistics, 14 franchises didn’t make money or were in the red last year. Let’s imagine the Raider fans being asked to pick up a hike in revenue to cover the cost of two more games that nobody wants to attend. You tell them the news, because I’m not going to do it.

7. What about the (not so little) linemen?: Getting personal, Sean Bubin, a friend and former NFL lineman, spoke to me about the dregs of being on the line. Bubin was drafted in 2004 by the Jaguars, and he played for the Lions and Vikings before spending time abroad with the Hamburg Sea Devils for NFL Europe—he retired at the ripe old age of 26. “I seized up—I couldn’t bend my limbs anymore,” said Bubin. “It happens to a lot of us.” Medical News Today cites that the average NFL career length in 2008 was 4.6 years, and only 7% of players made it past Hines Ward’s magic double-digit number of 10 seasons in the league. We may say we’re paying NFL players a boatload of money, but when you waste your body away in four or five years, that money better be worth it. According to the Boston Globe, Bubin only made $360,000 in his final, one-year contract with the New England Patriots.

8. DUI incidents will rise: Okay, so I made this one up, but it sounded good. And I’ll probably be right.