As both sides continue negotiations on the NFL’s labor contract, it’s probably safe to say the same fans who can diagram a 4-3 defense blindfolded don’t have much of an understanding of the issues that could lead to empty stadiums next fall.
They’re hardly alone, because at first glance the whole thing seems like a fight between millionaires and billionaires that is as unnecessary as it is ill-timed. Hard-liners on both sides have taken it to the brink, and there’s no indication that sanity will prevail before the current collective bargaining agreement expires and things really begin to get nasty.
Some things, though, are easier to understand. Let’s start with the news this week that Michael Vick signed a one-year deal that will pay him an estimated $20 million to play quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles next season — assuming, that is, there is a next season.
Not only will Vick be able to pay his debtors with a contract that would have been unimaginable when he was making 12 cents an hour in prison, but he’ll help upgrade the salary range for his fellow quarterbacks in the process.
It’s no secret that NFL players are well compensated. They should be, because their careers are generally short and they expose their bodies and heads to risks that athletes in other sports would never dream of.
But the owners aren’t doing badly, either, despite their protestations that they gave away the farm in the current contract and must snatch back at least $1 billion of the money they now have to share with players.
Consider the case of one Jerry Jones, last seen trying to sell some rubes Super Bowl tickets with no seat. Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 for $140 million and is now the proud owner of a franchise that Forbes magazine values at a whopping $1.8 billion.
Jones is hardly alone, as his fellow owners have enjoyed returns on their investments that would make Bernard Madoff envious. Robert Kraft is one of them, parlaying his $172 million purchase of the New England Patriots in 1994 into a franchise that Forbes now values at a cool $1 billion more than that.
No one begrudges them their profits, either. This is America, after all, and the NFL is America’s favorite sport in a landslide.
But Jones, Kraft and their fellow billionaires are people accustomed to getting their way, which is one big reason why a league enjoying unparalleled popularity would risk alienating its rabid fans with a labor dispute that is clearly avoidable. They’re determined to increase their profit margins by lowering labor costs and increasing the workload and aren’t terribly concerned with the public relations backlash that will come if they lock out the players.
They’re also not above pulling a fast one to get what they want, which is what they did in strong-arming television networks and DirecTV into agreeing to deals that essentially guaranteed that they would still get paid up to $4 billion in case the upcoming season is wiped out by the labor dispute.
Unfortunately for the owners, a federal judge sided with players on Tuesday on that issue. It was an embarrassing setback for the billionaires, made even more embarrassing when the judge made public the confidential sweetheart deals the NFL had struck with its broadcast partners.
Whether that will be an impetus to move negotiations forward is doubtful and not just because the owners are hard-nosed. Players who got almost everything they wanted in the last contract except guaranteed salaries have given no indication whatsoever that they intend to give back any of the gains, and they seem united against an 18-game season.
Both the owners and the union have drawn their respective lines in the sand. The fact that both sides seem to have a genuine distrust toward each other is going to make it that much harder to get a deal done.
Just what a lockout or possible union decertification means to fans depends on how long it goes on. Initially, it will cut into the buzz of the offseason because there will be no free agency, and the NFL draft next month surely will have a hollow feel because those drafted won’t be able to bargain with their teams.
It really will start to get messy by summer as the opening of training camps approaches. The worst case scenario, of course, is that the NFL loses regular-season games to a work stoppage for the first time in 24 years.
Don’t bet against that happening.
The NFL takes in more than $9 billion a year, and you would think reasonable minds could figure out a way to divvy that up between owners and their hired help.
Judging from the pace of negotiations so far, reasonable minds don’t seem to be running the show.