It's about trust.
Years of negotiating, hundreds of lawyers, thousands of documents, and $9 billion of easy revenue. And it all boils down to four words: I don't trust you.
The NFL is the most lucrative, tightly-controlled, image-conscious professional sports league in the world. The players are gladiators who capture the hearts of the world. The owners are titans of industry, controlling billions and keeping the league healthy.
But some times success can be a bad thing for trust. The NFL has become too powerful, too lucrative and too suspicious of themselves to have prevented this slow-moving disaster. The owners have gotten used to getting their way for so long and the union has gotten used to losing. Despite the money, the animosity rose each year.
When Gene Upshaw stopped being the NFL Players Union president there should have been a moment of silence around the country. That was the beginning of the end. Upshaw and Tagliabue helped keep differences at bay. It was a simple formula. Tagliabue gave orders, and Upshaw rolled over. They achieved a chummy relationship. Upshaw's flimsy negotiating skills kept the leauge going long past its due date. While the league was exponentially increasing its revenue, the players were getting scraps.
The trickle-down was barely reaching the average NFL player. These are not the Brett Favre's or Tom Brady's. The average NFL player has a career of one to three years and you've probably never heard of them. That doesn't mean it can't be rewarding, but certainly not sufficient for most guys who go on to live for another 50-60 years outside their NFL career. Health care costs, accidents and starting a family can make all that money go away very quickly.
There is a need for more revenue sharing between the owners and players. Certainly the NFL will never have a union as strong as major league baseball, but there has to be some balance when it comes to money.
$9 billion is a lot of revenue to share. And to fear losing.
And with $9 billion comes a lot of lawyers. And with lawyers comes fear. It's not their fault. Lawyers are trained professionals at minimizing risks and spotting weaknesses. They are protecting their client by being highly suspicious of advantage to the other side. NFL owners are mostly billionaires who are very good at protecting their financial interests.
The losers are the average players, the fans and even the owners in the long-run. The biggest loser is the fantasy of the NFL and the media machine that does a great job at hiding the business end of things. There is something less romantic about lawyers holding press conferences and your favorite NFL player dressed in a suit headed into a federal court. Fans begin to resent all these rich men in suits heading into court to fight over $9 billion.
The winners are the lawyers. They always win in conflict and they always get paid. Now it is up to lawyers who have every incentive to be as deliberate as possible. There is no rush once lawsuits get started to stop the proceedings. It's advantageous to breed mistrust at this point, to nitpick, to pour over every document and file lawsuits and counter-suits.
There is no trust. And their can't be a healthy business model without that four-letter word. You can bet the NBA is looking at this and is studying the news closely. Hopefully they'll learn something.