Players Need to Do More Than Think About a Strike; They Need a Plan to Win One

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJuly 21, 2017

ATLANTA - AUGUST 22: Players of the Atlanta Falcons show unity  before play against the Tennessee Titans at the Georgia Dome on August 22, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

History shows if NFL players go on strike, they get their ever-loving asses kicked. 

The union has fought hard during previous labor actions, but ultimately owners have "won" just about every time. It happened in 1968. It happened in 1982, when a strike led to better salaries and postseason pay, but the hit to players' pocketbooks during the strike led them to rise against union leadership. It happened in 1987, when owners employed replacement players for a few weeks. And it happened in the 2011 lockout, when the owners forced the players to reduce their share of revenues from 53 percent to 48 percent.

The current CBA expires after the 2020 season, and two things seem evident. One, there almost certainly will be some type of labor action—likely a strike—born out of the feeling that NFL players' salaries have fallen far behind those of players in the NBA and MLB. And, two, the players will probably lose.

The obstacles facing the players in such a standoff are significant.

Geoff Schwartz, a former offensive lineman who played with five NFL teams, told B/R he saw only one way for the players to best the owners. "Sit out games," Schwartz said. "Plain and simple."

Complicating matters even more is a union membership that is a lot less unified than the group of 32 owners. "I don't think we can get 2,000 guys to strike," Schwartz added. "Too big a gap in pay. Plenty of guys would cross the line and play."

Even some of those players not making star salaries may not be too committed to a labor cause. "I think young players would see [a strike] as an opportunity for money and film," Schwartz explained. "They don't have a strong connection to the NFLPA."

In effect, it's simply a question of firepower. The owners are worth billions. The players are worth millions. Straight math, homey.

In years past, NFL owners have had the conspicuous resources to withstand labor stoppages longer than players.
In years past, NFL owners have had the conspicuous resources to withstand labor stoppages longer than players.Rob Carr/Getty Images

When it comes to labor, it's the Patriots vs. the Browns, and we know who the Browns are in this case.

But here's something shocking: The players can win. The prospects would be bleak, but it can happen.

Here are five ways they could do it:

   

No. 5: Start saving...now

The core advantage owners have had in every labor action is they knew they could wait out the players. Eventually, owners knew, players would crack financially. So all the owners had to do was play a waiting game.

What's different now from, say, the 1980s is that while owners are far wealthier, some, too, are more leveraged. They have stadium and other debts to pay. That means their lasting power won't be unlimited.

It would be difficult for owners to lose a season. So if players can begin to gather resources now, about four years out from a potential strike, they may be able to hold out long enough to increase the financial pressure on owners.

    

No. 4: Convince younger players why a strike is vital

Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has argued that players have to be willing to sacrifice games if they hope to win some concessions from owners.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has argued that players have to be willing to sacrifice games if they hope to win some concessions from owners.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press

Schwartz may be right. Young players may not have the passion to strike the way some older veterans do, like Richard Sherman, who said players would need to sit out games.

"If we want to get anything done, then players have to be willing to strike," Sherman told ESPN's Jalen Rose at the ESPYs this month. "That's the thing that guys need to 100 percent realize. You're going to have to miss games, you're going to have to lose some money if you're willing to make the point, because that's how MLB and NBA got it done."

Younger players might not feel as strongly. They just want jobs. This is not to say they don't care about the greater player good. But they also know NFL careers can be short.

The union needs to convince these players why a strike wouldn't just help future players, but them as well. A labor stoppage would make the game safer, the union could argue, and everyone could earn more guaranteed money.

If the players can build a unified front, and keep it together, they'll stand a fighting chance against a group of owners who, when it comes to labor relations, are always unified.

    

No. 3: Get as nasty as the owners

The owners and the league have relentlessly used media coverage to their advantage in past labor negotiations.
The owners and the league have relentlessly used media coverage to their advantage in past labor negotiations.Rob Carr/Getty Images

I've covered a number of labor fights, and one thing the NFL always seems to win is the information war. Someone from the league is always whispering in your ear if you're a journalist, telling you information beneficial to the league's stance. No one fights an information war better than the NFL's league office. Well, maybe the Russians do, but the NFL is right there with them.

Jokes aside, the league's information machine is why fans seem to side with owners more than players, even though fans generally have more in common with rank-and-file NFL workers than billionaire owners.

The league is ruthless in the PR battle; the union is not. It's not as well funded and not, frankly, as nasty. Normally, that's not a bad thing. But when you're negotiating for your livelihood, being upstanding may be honorable, but it also may get you beaten.

The only thing owners understand is force, and with so many who watch and cover the game in the owners' corner, the union has to work twice as hard getting its message out.

    

No. 2: Put the quarterbacks front and center

Gene Upshaw, the former head of the union, used to tell variations of a story best captured in the Bob St. John biography of former Cowboys boss Tex Schramm, as the Guardian recently remembered. During the 1987 players' strike, Schramm once told Upshaw, "Don't you see? You're the cattle, we're the ranchers."

Quarterbacks are perhaps the only players whose voices might catch the attention of owners across the NFL.
Quarterbacks are perhaps the only players whose voices might catch the attention of owners across the NFL.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

That remains partially true, unfortunately, except at one position: quarterback.

The union would be wise to create a rotating panel of quarterbacks who, in the event of a lockout or strike, would hold press conferences daily. Tom Brady one day. Russell Wilson the next. Aaron Rodgers on another day. On and on it would go. No Jets, however, since they don't have a quarterback.

Pair the quarterbacks with union officials and lawyers who can answer the more technical questions. Owners are terrified of their quarterbacks. That's because they hold so much power.

    

No. 1: Be willing to sacrifice the season

This is the key. In many ways, it's the only one.

No one knows how long the owners can afford to miss games until they feel a financial pinch, but it's almost certain that missing a season would put immense pressure on them, despite their great wealth.

Sure, fans with season ticket packages wouldn't be pleased, but more important, neither would television networks.

Missing a season would shift the balance of power from the owners to the players. It's really the only thing that can.

Winning a labor standoff against the NFL owners would be a brutal fight, but it's one the players can win if they're willing to make a game plan now.

    

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @mikefreemanNFL.  

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