NFL Lockout and Judge Nelson's Ruling: The Slow Destruction of a Monopoly

Caleb GarlingCorrespondent IApril 27, 2011

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 23:  A general view of the fans in the NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on January 23, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Quick: You are a highly touted college football prospect and the draft is coming up, how many prospective employers do you have? There are 32 teams in the NFL, so you have…?

One. One prospective employer. The National Football League. You may don the Silver and Black, or the Green and Yellow, but you work for the NFL. Sure, you may get drafted and your paycheck comes from Oakland, Green Bay, etc., but who governs the parameters, the floors and ceilings of that contract? The NFL. Later, when that contract expires, who set the rules of your free agency and resigning process? The NFL. When you retire and need a healthcare and pension plan because you are lucky to survive more than three years in your job, who governs those conditions? The NFL.

This would be like graduating from college with a computer science degree and no matter whether you went to work for Google, Facebook, Twitter or your friend’s app development firm, all your actual employment decisions were governed by the National Internet League.

Ludicrous, right? There isn’t another industry in this country with a body the governs every firm in that particular market. The only parallel system in the United States is, in fact, the United States government.

You might pay taxes in Pennsylvania or California, but you’re still an American. Washington’s laws, as the Constitution states, are the “supreme law of the land.” You can live in any of the 50 states but your citizenship never changes.

Otherwise, in business, this is called…a monopoly. If you want to play pro football, you have one employer choice and, we, the fans, only have one choice where we buy our professional football. You may change which team your root for, but the cash from your merchandise, tickets and time spent watching advertisements eventually, after a team gets their cut, flows back to the NFL.

And for this reason, Roger Goodell’s editorial response to Judge Susan Nelson’s ruling in the Wall Street Journal was strangely transparent. Anyone with a half a brain would realize that the piece is weak-sauce scare tactics. Whether he's correct in his prognosis is almost irrelevant; the piece reads like an awkward parent attempting to convince their kid that sex or beer is just evil.

While repeating various versions of “IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT THE NFL TO BE?” Goodell highlights the consequences of the union dissolving:

• No draft.

• No minimum team payroll.

• No minimum player salary.

• No standard guarantee to compensate players who suffer season- or career-ending injuries.

• No league-wide agreements on benefits.

• No limits on free agency.

• No league-wide rule limiting the length of training camp or required off-season workout obligations.

• No league-wide testing program for drugs of abuse or performance enhancing substances.

Except the last, you know what all those bullets sound like?

A free market. Goodell’s dramatic editorial makes the end of the union out to be some sort of chaotic McCarthian dystopia where Mad Max and Snake Plissken negotiate contracts and “fans would have none of the protections or benefits that only a union (through a collective-bargaining agreement) can deliver.” (wait, sorry, I had union benefits last season?)

But all he’s talking about is the end of a monopoly.

This would be like our theoretical National Internet League saying:

“With the dissolution of the Internet Workers Union, college graduates will have a choice who they work for; they will be able to negotiate how much they are paid and what their pensions will be; we won’t be able to govern the floors and ceilings to their contracts; big companies will be able to pay more than little companies; work hours will be determined by the employees and companies themselves! Is that the kind of workplace you want in America?!”

Think of it this way: how many executives in America are expounding the value of their workers’ unions and collective bargaining agreements? Doesn’t it seem weird that the stodgy owners are the ones who are now Pro-Union?

But the league’s real fear, I’d guess, is that since the players are out from under the not-able-to-sue-the-league blanket of the union, the players will sue to abolish the salary cap. As the players would likely argue, it inhibits their earning potential and is more or less collusion. As NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said, “We’re all for anything that allows the players to realize their maximum potential on the free agent market.”

So, would we, the lil' ol' fans, be okay with no salary cap?

This would create a model closer to Major League Baseball or European soccer leagues. Teams in richer markets, as Goodell rightly points out, would fare better than the weaker market teams; they can spend more.

I have trouble rustling up much sympathy for owners and their wallets, but I must say that I like the parity in the NFL. A large portion of the league’s success over the last two decades has been predicated on the idea of giving every team a fighting chance every year, despite the earning potential of the respective fanbase. Eliminating the previous collective bargaining agreement and the salary cap would shift the model back to a system of haves and have-nots; the Giants and the Chiefs could eventually pan out like the Yankees and the Royals.

At this point, the idea is only a thought pill. There are too many remaining legal battles for it to be worth spending many cycles on such a massive change. But should it come to pass, the NFL would become an awfully different league, since players would choose from 32 (or more) prospective employers, not just one.


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[Caleb is a Featured Columnist and also writes for Follow him]