Whether you side with Roger Goodell, the owners, DeMaurice Smith and the NFLPA or just wish it would stop killing the March Madness coverage (keep this in mind), it’s always a little comical to hear about what transpires during these collective bargaining agreements.
“Sides may talk next week!”
“Sources say X!”
“Injunction filed against Y!”
“Union denies Z”
Ugh, who cares? I try to tune out the media circus (who are loving the headline-a-day factory). I don’t care about the details; I could give a damn about how advertising and ticket revenues are split or who is filing an injunction against whom. Those sound like fancy problems. I just want to watch football. It’s like a kid hearing about his divorced parents’ problems. Just put the game back on and be happy.
However, as often happens—and it kills me—my car-crash curiosity gets the better of my attention. I can’t help but picture the boardroom and negotiations. I imagine grey-haired executives adorned in Brooks Brothers on one side of a rich mahogany table; battle-worn gladiators sporting suits melted down from someone’s rims and woven into fabric on the other.
Even though the vision is inaccurate, just that these two swaths of humanity are in the same room arguing over hundreds of millions of dollars needs its own pause and reflection.
Strangely, when I do, a little sympathy develops for those gladiators (regardless of how much cash they’ve hauled in over the years); with a pure sniff test, their predicament seems tougher than the owners’. Yet instead of thinking about the mess like a fancy problem or an annoying headline or even a “fairness” issue, it’s worth viewing the dispute like historians—only considering the overarching factors, not the day-to-day BS.
We can sum up this labor dispute like most post-OSHA disputes—for any job: the workers want more than the owners wish to pay them.
So think about screenwriters, airline pilots, auto workers, miners, or any other group that's gone on strike recently. If there is a "winner" and "loser" in these affairs, what is a bedrock reason for an owner victory? When the picket-lines and the red-faced interviews are over and everyone goes back to work, and everyone wearing Brooks Brothers is smiling, what is a central pillar of an owner "win?"
The workers can’t do anything else.
They need the work; they don’t have other skills. And if they do, using them would be a major step back from where they were. They were already “professionals.” The owners can sit on their bank accounts and wait them out. It’s a simple game of math. Owners have more money and options.
So what can the Players Association do to help themselves? How about an active investment in the future?
Rather than grasping for every advertising and ticketing dollar with the highly-debatable case that players “have the right to them,” shore up your negotiating leverage: invest (way more) in career development and require college degrees to join the union (and play in the NFL).
The special-teamer that left school to capitalize on his good (fluky) Junior season and now realizes he’s going to fight for a job every August—at best—is watching this labor dispute thinking, “Shit. This had better work out. My three years are up and I just bought a Z5. If not, I don’t know who’s going to hire a Phys-Ed major, 38 credit hours short of graduating.”
So what happens? He okays the first deal that comes his way—a low ball—and the owners largely get what they want.
In 2009, 16 players went back to finish their college degree. Ty Warren and Andre Johnson are fan-friendly names, but 16 is pretty uninspiring.
Fifty-six underclassmen have registered for the 2011 draft. That’s 56 guys who are gambling on the better part of a 3.5 year average career; yet according to the the NFLPA, players without degrees have half the career-span than those who do. Not all will get contracts, but that’s 56 potential players without better career options than coaching summer camps. Those 56 guys hinder the NFLPA’s negotiating power.
But obviously, as anyone looking for a job can attest, a college degree doesn’t guarantee employment. Players need actual skills, something to flesh out the idea of "opening a club with my buddies" a little better.
The NFL does provide a career development program, but it’s clear (by the content-thin website and dependence on anecdote) that they don’t put much stock in it. Because brand comes first, the NFL is more concerned with how players interact with the community. That’s why we get ads of everyone volunteering to build houses, not trying to create small businesses. But I admit, career planning is not their job, either.
The NFLPA would serve themselves to push (shove, catapult) players into their own programs. Why not require career and business skill development of players with less than three years of experience or making less than a million per season?
Now with a college degree, they’re ensuring the options for players who are probably going to be on the wrong side of that 3.5 year average (and are liable to jump at the first sign of playing ball again).
On a much grander scale, this is why governments in oppressive countries can (could) keep their people down: a lack of education and knowledge about the ways of rest of the world. Keep them in the dark, and they'll depend on someone to lead them around.
Too many players “can’t imagine not playing football”; it's "all they've ever known." Wearing pads has been their identity since Pop Warner and now that they’re not in the .0005% of athletes guaranteed a roster spot each season, their inability to move beyond the game hinders the negotiating leverage for the NFLPA.
"Life" insurance measures are needed, not only to stick it to the bosses, but to ensure real options for the gladiators after that last whistle.
Follow Caleb at www.twitter.com/calebgarling.