On Choosing Sides in the NFL Lockout

>> 3.12.2011

Last August, I wrote the following:

I’m the schmuck in line at the gate, ready to part with fistfuls of hard-earned jack I should spend on more important things. I’m the tool with a family of five, all dressed in jerseys on gameday. I’m the fool at the bottom of the pyramid scheme, the rube all this is built upon, the mark they’re all getting rich off of . . .

. . . and I’m the kid in front of the TV set, eyes as big as saucers, watching Barry run. Owners, players, coaches, front office, staff, agents, flaks, and all the rest: please. Remember me. Remember us. Remember who really bears the financial burden here—and ultimately, who really holds the cards. Baseball, 1994? Hockey, 2005? We are the golden goose, and you have your hands around our neck.

The union has now decertified, and the NFL has locked the players out.

Throughout this process, fans have had a hard time choosing a side. It’s almost impossible to identify with the players; they’re the top 1% of the top 1% of the top 1% of athletes. They achieve incredible levels of fame and success—in most cases, before they’re old enough to buy beer. They, likely, were the most popular kids in school from a very young age, and had grown adults following them around like puppies from high school on. They’re the ones we see on the field, week after week, making athletic feats we couldn’t dream about doing on our best-dreaming day look routine. We stand in line for hours for a chance at getting their autograph. We melt into babbling idiots when we do get that chance. They are our heroes, they are our idols, and we’d do almost anything to live life as them, even for a little while. What a charmed life, we imagine, they lead.

NFL owners are a different lot. Like politicians and bureaucrats, some seem like familiar characters: Jerry Jones, Al Davis, Dan Snyder. We know how they look, how they talk, what they like, the decisions they tend to make. Others, like William Clay Ford, practically never talk to the public, but we put words in their mouths anyway. Between the very public business decisions they make, and their few public statements, we come to know these men as caricatures: like Donald Trump or Bill Gates, we make them accessible—human—by reducing them to the ridiculous.

I’d like to credit our American ideals, our society’s ingrained belief that every single one of us is just some elbow grease and a lucky break away from being fabulously wealthy. The fact of the matter is that many of these men either built enormous businesses from the ground up, or had wealth—and the team itself—gifted to them. We simply cannot imagine how far removed we are from that world. Witness the public outrage when The Big 3 CEOs flew in private jets to Washington to ask for a bailout! Oh my goodness! As if that wasn’t the way they normally got around!

But NFL athletes? Most of them live in the same world we do for most of their lives. As I’ve said before, I went to college at Michigan State, in an athletes' dorm. I hung out with a lot of football players—and while I got to see just how Big of Men on Campus they were, I’ve also heard where they came from, and seen what’s happened to them since. Most knew they didn’t have a shot at playing on Sundays. Some couldn’t finish school. Some bounced around the Arena League, NFL Europe, and the CFL before getting regular jobs. One even signed with the Lions as a UDFA, went through one day of training camp, and hung ‘em up; through a mutual friend I heard he figured being a gym teacher was easier than two-a-days. One got drafted #2 overall by the Lions . . . now he’s got a horde of mouths to feed and an eight-digit settlement hanging over his head.

Of course, players like Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh had supportive parents, charmed high school and college careers, and signed enormous NFL contracts that will set them up for life. But, for every single one of them, there are thousands that played D-I college ball, had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and now punch a clock.

Throughout this process, the NFLPA has honest and communicative with me and the fans. Yes, they've tried to get "their message" out—but whenever they've stated facts, they've been facts. The players have repeatedly reached out to bloggers and fans on Twitter, through email, and via phone to explain what’s going on from their perspective. Meanwhile, I’ve written several open letters to the Commissioner, and privately tried to contact NFL spokespeople multiple times; I might as well be talking to a wall.

NFL lead counsel Jeff Pash said yesterday that “the absence of an agreement is a shared failure," and I wholeheartedly agree. But the Commissioner’s latest letter to fans does nothing but explain why it’s all the players’ fault. Meanwhile, DeMaurice Smith’s statement apologizes, at length, to the fans and players, while recognizing the efforts of past players who fought to build the league into what it is today. Whose statement rings more true to you?

NFL-Decision-Tree1

What’s that?  It’s an internal NFL flowchart, created to explain their decision-making process. It’s one of the key pieces of evidence Judge Doty referred to when ruling that the NFL violated the CBA. It’s proof that they decided to lock the players out years ago, and jury-rigged the last round of TV contracts to fund a “lockout insurance” war chest. Maybe that just sounds like prudent planning to you—so here’s an analogy.

Imagine if Ford decided the current UAW contract gave too much money to the workers, and that they’d seek major concessions at the next renewal. So, they went to their dealerships and said, “Hey, will you guys agree to keep paying for cars, even if we’re not making any? We’ll sell the cars to you now at a discount.” Then, they sell the cars (that workers built) to the dealers at a discount, thereby making themselves less profitable. Then, they tell the UAW they’re less profitable these days, and demand major concessions. When the union asks for proof, they lock them out—then line their pockets with the money dealers are paying them for non-existent cars. Meanwhile, the workers with mouths to feed and mortgage payments to make have little but their personal savings.

There’s a reason Judge Doty ruled this trick violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement: it’s low-down, dirty stuff. First they shortchanged the players of deserved revenue, then they set up a war chest that would ensure the players caved first . . . all because they weren’t quite wildly profitable enough. This tactic puts the lie to all of the “give a little, get a little” talk the NFL office has been spouting from the get-go, and to all of the “the players decided to walk away for no reason” talk they’re spouting now.

Of course, it certainly appears as though the league made significant movement as the last minute. Today, the NFL and the Trade Association Formerly Known As The NFLPA have wildly differing opinions as to what the NFL’s last offer entailed. So now, a lockout, and the battle will be settled in the courts. Likely, free agency will start sometime before the draft, and business in the NFL will proceed in something kind-of resembling normal fashion.

There’s an argument to be made that we shouldn’t even be paying attention; that all sides admit there will certainly be NFL football in 2011. That it’s a dispute between two groups we cannot influence, who don’t care about us. That we should shrug our shoulders and focus on free agency and the draft and everything else we normally do, and plug our ears and go LA LA LA LA LA about everything labor-related until there’s football again. I flatly can’t do that; I’m too invested in these players and these teams. Plus, it tickles my Justice Thing.

I don’t know what makes people root for the most fortunate to get more fortunate. I don’t know why working folks repeatedly side with the people exploiting them. I don’t know why, after the owners opted out of the CBA, demanded a billion dollar give-back, and refused to justify it with financial data, almost 40% of ProFootballTalk readers think this is the “players’ fault.” If you want to ignore all of this and wait for football, that’s fine. But if you’re inclined to choose sides, stop and think about who really needs your support—the wealthy old men who’ve harvested billions from fans for decades? Or the young guys who’ll likely be selling cars or teaching gym in five years?

14 comments:

Angus Osborne,  March 13, 2011 at 4:36 AM  

I whole heartedly agree.

jeremy of 218 March 13, 2011 at 11:45 AM  

Finally some in-depth analysis on the bargaining agreement worth reading, excellent job! All that really needs to be read is the last two lines of this article, you really sent home the message. You can't help but feel for the players after reading that.

Jason March 13, 2011 at 12:13 PM  

Nice read. Good points.

@SmittyDMR

Jimmerz,  March 13, 2011 at 6:40 PM  

Order of blame:

1) Fans
2) Owners
3) Players

NorthLeft12 March 14, 2011 at 6:11 AM  

Ty, Very well put.
I think you are getting close to understanding why so many fans blame the players, and why there is constant bitching from fans about how "overpaid" the players are; jealousy.

Football players are not that far removed from us the fans. Most, if not all, of them came from pretty humble beginnings, and a lot of fans have had contact with them in some way in high school, college, or as fans. Owners are from a ruling class so far removed from the regular population that they don't even live in the same reality.
A number of fans had dreams of athletic glory and probably feel that they do as well as some of the players now on the field.
It just seems in discussions with a lot of fans, there is a feeling that there is something wrong with players making millions of dollars for playing a game. While the owners making billions from marketing that game is just part of the system and elicits no more than a shrug and a "What can you do about it?"

Ryan March 14, 2011 at 1:49 PM  

The best writing on the subject I've seen yet. And it's not because I'm just a fan of Ty....haha

- March 14, 2011 at 4:27 PM  

Insightful, thoughtful commentary. This is why I love your blog.

Ty March 14, 2011 at 5:14 PM  

Angus, jeremy of 218, Jason, Jimmerz--

Thanks! I put an awful lot of elbow grease into it. I have an e-wastebasket in the corner with 52 crumpled-up drafts.

Peace
Ty

Ty March 14, 2011 at 5:15 PM  

Jimmerz--

Wait huh? How is this the fans' fault?

Peace
Ty

Alvin,  March 14, 2011 at 10:36 PM  

Great article Ty, it pretty much says it all. I still think the players have it made as well and the rookie cap has to get taken care of, but the owner shadiness is called out in this article, good stuff man. I'm in Wisconsin so labor disputes are at the front of my mind, I can't get away from it,lol.

Al

Angus Osborne,  March 15, 2011 at 1:05 AM  

The thing I don't get about fans sympathising with the owners not the players is that without the owners football would still be pretty entertaining, but without the players it would suck big time. The owners are all about taking as much of our money as possible, while the players are going out and providing entertainment.

Another thing I don't get is why are the players pretty much expendable (non-guaranteed contracts, currently locked out) despite being the only totally essential personnel to the sport, but the coaches and support staff get guaranteed contracts.

Jimmerz,  March 15, 2011 at 1:32 AM  

Ty,

The fans are the ones paying these ridiculous prices for PSLs, tickets, jerseys, hats, trinkets, underwear, etc. If we fans could muster any form of self control the owners wouldn't have the leverage that they do. I think it's close between fault of the fans and the owners, but either way both are far more to blame than the players are.

Matt,  March 18, 2011 at 12:48 PM  

Jimmerz, gotta' disagree. The fans control the size of the "pie," but the owners/players are arguing over how to divide up that pie. Sure, consideration is given to the overall size and growth potential of the pie, but it's the slicing at issue. Even if the pie were half the size, the two sides would still disagree over how to wield the knife. Nothing the fans can do about that (besides stay away completely, which simply isn't going to happen).

Matt,  March 18, 2011 at 1:11 PM  

It is a strange culture we have in America that reveals itself in issues like this labor dispute. Basically, if the plate on your desk says "Joe Smith, Owner" (whether you "earned" that title by building a company or inherited it) you're allowed to make as much money as possible by any means necessary and not only live guilt-free, but be lauded for your efforts. You're also allowed to keep the amount you made pretty much secret. If your tag says anything else, you better take what you can get, shut your mouth, and be happy you even have a job. And the vast, vast, vast majority of us don't have an "Owner" nameplate. Strange.

Trying to bring this back to football, I think part of the problem is that player salaries are so much more public and those that become public are almost always the huge ones. Is it USA Today that, every season, prints the salary+bonus amount of every player in the NFL? Who prints the owners' profits? For example, we all know about Albert Haynesworth's $100 million, but can anyone tell me what rookie WR Brandon Banks pulled in from the 'Skins? And can you tell me how much Dan Snyder personally profitted? We fans then turn around and castigate Haynesworth (to be fair, I think it's safe to say Albie hasn't earned this particular contract), completely ignore/forget about Banks, and give Snyder a free pass.

I always try to remember that while the players DO make pretty ridiculous money for doing a pretty ridiculous job, the people signing those checks are all very successful businesspeople. Dan Snyder would not have signed Haynesworth's contract if he didn't ultimately think he'd get every one of those dollars back PLUS a solid return on his investment. And he never has to step on a football field to "earn" it.

I think both sides share a lot of blame for not being able to divide up $9 billion and I don't really care to assign a specific amount of blame to each party. I also don't think you can call the players overpaid without also taking the owners to task (or at least attempting to justify their huge profits).

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