With yesterday's news that a NFL work stoppage is a near certainty, there's already much rhetoric being bounced around about which side is in the right in this labor dispute. On most message boards the fan outrage is clear, and most of it is squarely pointed at the players.
Fans call the players "greedy" and "prima donnas" and talk about how normal Americans work hard at their jobs for much less money than those named Manning, Brady, or Roethlisberger—and to a certain extent, they're right. However, it's clear that the "job" of professional football players has very little in common with those who fold khaki sweaters at The Gap. And this isn’t such a simplistic “passion vs. greed” issue between the players and owners, and both sides have allowed this labor disagreement escalate to this level.
What's clear though is that professional football is an immensely profitable venture. The NFL brings in an estimated $9 billion in revenue annually, and that's for a sport where the majority of the teams play only 16 games a season. What isn't so clear is what constitutes an equitable "split" of this revenue between the owners and players. And what's even less clear to the fans (you know, the people who actually make the sport popular) is exactly what these two sides are fighting over? So I'll do my best to explain the two main issues that are threatening the 2011 season.
Now this should come as no surprise. After all, most labor disputes begin and end with salary demands. But in the NFL's case, this is more about how the income "pie" is split between the owners and players—and much of the dispute comes from the owners' aversion to financial transparency when it comes to proving their claims of shrinking profits.
Under the current collective bargaining agreement, the players agreed to give up one billion dollars "off the top" before the remaining revenue was shared 50-50 between the players and owners. So before signing a new agreement, the players want to know exactly why the owners need this money before they're willing to part with such a large chunk of cash up front. Sound reasonable? It does to me.
If the owners are truly losing money, what is the harm in showing the financial "bottom line" to the players? The fact that the owners want to cherry pick what financial records the players are allowed to see should cause suspicion, especially for a group of who repeatedly downplayed the health risks to the players who made them so much money—but more on that next.
2. HEALTH AND SAFETY
The NFL owners were stubborn for years on the prospect of concussions and their catastrophic effect on the future of players' lives. Only in 2010, when the evidence was so overwhelming that they started to look like big tobacco lawyers, did they admit what every other person already knew. But the safety of NFL players isn't just an issue for those currently suiting up on Sundays, as former player Dave Duerson could attest to, if he wasn't deceased.
Duerson was a 50 year-old veteran of 10 NFL seasons when he held a gun to his chest on February 17th, 2011 and pulled the trigger. Why did he shoot himself in the chest, you ask? Because Duerson wanted to preserve his brain for research, and was convinced that the repeated concussions he endured as a professional football player were the reason he was resorting to suicide.
But sadly, Duerson's case isn't that rare. Over the past 15 years, the plight of former NFL players have slowly come under increased scrutiny by medical professionals and the media. The Boston University study has provided some grim insight into just what repeated concussions can do to a player's brain. They do this by gaining access to deceased players' brain tissue, from former players like John Grimsley, Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Tom McHale. In some cases, these men are dying in their 30's and 40's, while showing brain damage on par with dementia patients in their 80's.
So forgive me if I ignore the guys who watch games in $2,000 suits and sit in climate-controlled luxury boxes when they give lip service to the issue of player safety, or extended medical coverage.
Football is a sport that often takes players' bodies and minds and—for lack of a better analogy—flushes them down the toilet. So when players talk of needing extended health coverage beyond their years on the field, it's a serious issue. After all, earning several hundred thousand dollars a year might sound like a dream to the average American, but what if that comes with years of dealing with knee, back, or brain issues that require treatment or surgery?
Should players be expected to go "out of pocket" for injuries that occurred while on the field of play? Or should owners start treating players like military veterans who deserve respect for putting their health and safety on the line, while making football the most profitable sport in the world?
The bottom line here? Professional football would make money with or without these franchise owners. Sure, they may sit behind a big desk and approve the designs for new stadiums, but pro football is fueled by the men who play the game between the lines every autumn Sunday. For example, the Dallas Cowboys owner (Jerry Jones) reportedly paid $70 million for the team and an additional $70 million for Texas Stadium just 22 years ago. And today? The Cowboys are valued 1.65 billion dollars, and Jones recently built a billion-dollar stadium to house his "golden goose" of a team. Are we to believe that Jones' business acumen is responsible for such an increase in value in just over two decades? Heck, even Al Davis turns a profit in the NFL—and that's saying something.
Think of it: if we allowed the owners to keep the stadiums and team uniforms, meanwhile the NFL Players were allowed to lease stadium space and create new helmet logos, who would the world be watching next fall? That's right, the players.
So my advice to owners? Belly up to the table and give the people who allow you to print money what they want. The only "business risk" left in this game is not playing the games, and allowing fans to find something else to do with their time.
Russell Arch writes about sports because it keeps the voices in his brain at bay. Follow his random thoughts on Twitter.