Everyone is well aware of the looming strike that could occur at the end of the current season, and while most of us are extremely happy and enjoying the game of football for the first time in months, there have been very few signs of progress in any way, shape, or form towards a new agreement. There are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about the issues at hand in this discussion. This is in large part millionaires fighting with billionaires over more money than most people will see in a lifetime. However, the agreement that is eventually reached is definitely going to affect the fans, and more likely than not will have a much greater effect on the lower echelon of players and us than it is on the owners or the Lance Briggs/Jay Cutler's of the football world.
Follow me below the fold where I'll take a quick look at some of the facts of matter, and things to keep in mind during the coming season. I'll also take a small moment to share exactly how I feel on the matter.
It's too late to go back now, and the posturing is much more than posturing at this point. Knives are being drawn, and plans are being made in the event a deal cannot be reached. The first thing we'll take a look at is what that will mean for the standard off-season time-line.
First things first, even if the NFL owners declare a lock-out there will definitely be an NFL draft in 2011. This is something very important to consider, and not without its own caveats and issues. If you want to follow along in your program, the pertinent info is found as part of Article XVI under the heading College Draft in the CBA. The important parts are as follows.
Section 1. Time of Draft: There shall be an Annual Selection Meeting (the
"College Draft" or "Draft") each League Year during the term of this Agree-
ment and in the League Year immediately following the expiration or ter-
mination of this Agreement, with respect to which the following rules shall
This is basically what establishes that we're having a draft next year, even if we don't have an actual season. Even though the CBA will be effectively terminated at this point, it'll be the League Year immediately following the termination so the college players will be able to be drafted, even if they don't have anywhere to go.
Section 3. Required Tender: A Club that drafts a player shall be deemed to
have automatically tendered the player a one year NFL Player Contract for
the Minimum Active/Inactive List Salary then applicable to the player pur-
suant to the terms of this Agreement. The NFL or the Club shall provide
the player with notice of such Required Tender before or immediately fol-
lowing the Draft.
The grey area begins here, because technically the CBA will be terminated at this point so a lot of the things that the CBA specifies, like minimum contacts and such really won't matter a lot, or be anything close to enforceable. The standard gentleman's agreement between owners will likely apply at this point, so what the CBA doesn't cover, you can fully expect to be left to languish and stay the same because the union will be more focused on the CBA than individual player issues. One final excerpt from this section is very important in regards to the draft:
Section 5. Other Professional Teams:
(a) Notwithstanding Section 4(b) above, if a player is drafted by a
Club and, during the period between the Draft and the next annual Draft,
signs a contract with, plays for or is employed by a professional football
team not in the NFL during all or any part of the 12 month period follow-
ing the initial Draft, then the drafting Club (or any assignee Club) shall re-
tain the exclusive NFL rights to negotiate for and sign a contract with the
player until the day of the Draft three (3) League Years after the initial Draft.
Just to clarify, a league year runs from March 1st to the end of February with the NFL season having zero bearing, so basically they'll have locked up rights on an NFL level for three years, and there is no way, even if a lock out occurs, that it'll be lasting three years. So whoever a team drafts will still be their player even if the game isn't until two years later.
So a draft will happen, what else will occur? Well, the union is almost certain to decertify itself, which means the union theatrically commits seppuku so that it's ghost may sue like there is no tomorrow. Less theatrically, it basically means the NFLPA will no longer be the union that represents the players. Since the players are no longer represented by the union, when the NFL applies the same rules regarding players to all 32 teams, the players, which are basically the union, can then sue under anti-trust laws. In other words, the lawyers get to have fun cleaning up a massive mess, but on the upshot there is probably a 70/30 chance that you'd see football while the lawyers sorted everything out. This basic idea happened before, and it's very similar to what happened in 1987. You may remember this as the time that Sean Payton was a Chicago Bear.
So we've now established what's going to happen if both sides keep facing each other, revving their engines, and letting off the parking break ever so slowly. Now let's take a quick look at why they're actually doing this. First up on the hit parade is Roger Goodell:
"We have guaranteed three more years of NFL football," commissioner Roger Goodell said after the owners used the opt-out clause built into the agreement signed more than two years ago. "We are not in dire straits. We've never said that. But the agreement isn't working, and we're looking to get a more fair and equitable deal." - ESPN
What does he mean by more fair and equitable deal? If one side says the deal isn't fair it's because they want more of the pie. It's as simple as that. It's all about money, and the owners in the NFL think they aren't making enough, the players are making too much, and the risk isn't shared evenly enough.
Goodell's e-mail listed three reasons for the early termination: high labor costs, problems with the rookie pool and the league's inability, through the interpretation of the courts, to recoup bonuses of players who subsequently breach their contract or refuse to perform. - ESPN
Now, we can all look at this and agree with a lot of what is being said. Rookie contracts are currently extremely out of wack, and the union has already said they'd be willing to negotiate on the front. It's a non-issue for all parties as the players already in the union are the same players that would stand to make more money, so of course they are for something akin to a rookie cap.
The inability to recoup large portions of their bonus money is as close to a non-starter as you'll find, even though it sounds incredibly reasonable at face value. The only guaranteed part of an NFL contract is the guaranteed money paid in the form of bonuses. Again, just to emphasize, the only guaranteed part of an NFL contract is the guaranteed money paid in the form of bonuses. To allow owners to take away guaranteed money for any of a laundry list of reasons would basically un-guarantee guaranteed money, and that's exactly what the owners are looking for. If they weren't, this wouldn't be a point of contention. The NFL has already been able to recoup some small parts of various bonuses over the years, but has always failed at taking the lion's share of them any time it's went into the court system so this is about a blatant grab for power as you're going to find in contract negotiations.
The best is left for last, and that's the league's complete and utter tone deaf declaration about labor costs. You can dress it up with fancy words all you would like, but at the end of the day the league is saying that the players make too much money. Their slice of the pie is too big, even if the league is built on the backs of these guys. I'm not going to get into a huge numbers argument, but that's only because the NFL refuses to release their numbers - which is the largest point of contention between the union and the NFL. The NFL has basically played extremely loose with their financial reporting over the years, and a lot of what exists has to be reconstructed, but the long and short of it is that the NFL players salaries currently float somewhere just over 50% of league revenue. The sounds reasonable to both myself, the union, and the majority of fans. However, the NFL has basically come out said that their salaries are outstripping the profits the league is generating.
Think about that for a second, in more personal terms. You go to work every day for a small company that designs websites. There are two people in this company, the owner and the website designer. The company charges $100 a website, and the owner gives you half of the $100. That sounds like a fairly equitable arrangement, especially if that is what was agreed upon. Now then, let's say another arrangement is made where the owner takes $20 off the top to pay for expenses related to finding the business, but then gives you 40$, and takes $40 for himself. Again, if this is the arrangement you made with the owner, it still seems fairly equitable. This is fairly close to the current labor agreement. Now, in the second arrangement, one day the owner comes in and says "Sorry Staley, you're making way too much money compared to what we're bringing in. I'm going to have to ask you to take $25 instead of $40." if you're like most people you would want to know what happened, and why the previous arrangement is no longer working. That's basically what the union has done, and asked for. They've asked to see the numbers, if the situation is different as claimed by the NFL then they want to see proof of that. They want to see the financial data for the NFL since the NFL is claiming that labor costs are outstripping growth. The NFL has stonewalled and basically said it's never going to happen.
This is where the final point of contention really takes a life of its own, and has somewhat been a trojan horse of sorts made to make the players look bad in the eyes of fans. We, as fans, love football. A good majority of people would love to see more football each year. Even more fans would prefer to see more real football over pre-season games. I mean, those lucky enough to have season tickets would love to stop getting gouged for meaningless pre-season games. So it sounds like a great idea to add more games, right? This is where the NFL is playing numbers games, while at the same time trying to win the hearts and minds of the public. To use our previous example, our boss now says to Staley, "It's okay Staley, we're going to pump out a few more websites a week so you'll still get the same paycheck at the end of the month. In fact, we might even be able to raise your rate back up to $30 so you'll have an even larger check than you did before!" That may look okay at first glance, but upon further study it's easy to see that Staley would be working longer hours for a smaller part of the pie, and doing so without ever seeing proof of the financial difficulties claimed in the first place.
We can talk about financial risks until we're blue in the face, but the actual risks are without question the ones made by the players on the field. Every single time a cleat goes into the turf there is a very real risk that their ACL could tear, that their days of earning in the NFL would be instantly over. They may receive an injury settlement, but it's usually the guaranteed money that sets them up for life after football. This isn't even mentioning the long term health risks that thousands of players have not just been at risk for, but actually experienced. Players who have psychotic breaks from brain damage over the years, guys in the 40's who can't get out of bed without taking pain killers due to the progressive joint damage experienced over their career, and much, much more. The early days of the NFL are long since gone, and the chances of franchises ever going belly up died about the same time the MLB decided to strike in the 90's and passed the mantle of national pastime over to the NFL. So if we're going to talk about risk, and value, and everything in between, let's not pretend that the NFL is undertaking that much financial risk anymore, and let's not pretend that these players aren't sacrificing, no matter the number of zeros on their paycheck.
Now, I said I'd give my feelings on the matter and I will. I'll try to keep it short since I've already bored you all with the minutia more than I'd care to, but not more than I could have.
The reason the NFL is crying poor, and the reason they are securing massive five billion dollar TV deals, and why they opted out of the CBA in the first place, all boils down to the same thing. The vines are withering faster than they can be regrown. What are the vines? They aren't interest in the sport, as that's growing every single year. They aren't revenue from things like jerseys, attire, and other accoutrement. What is dying is the average fan's interest in going anywhere closer to the stadium than the tailgating area.
We, as Bears fans, take Soldier Field for granted more often than not. For all of its terrible field conditions, extremely cold weather, often uncomfortable seating, and any of a long laundry list of complaints, it's still the battlefield that we most closely associate with our Chicago Bears. It's as much a part of the Chicago Bears as Brian Urlacher, or dare I even say, Mike Ditka. We are the fans among fans, we are the people that will go out in negative wind chill with the snow swirling and sit there with our blue and orange parkas on and enjoy a great game of football. Hell, one of the reasons we share such an epic rivalry with the Green Bay Packers is that while we may be hated rivals there is a deep seated respect for the fan on the other side of that coin. Most teams don't have that, in fact, a lot of teams don't have that.
Do you think Tennessee Titans fans could care less about L.P. Field? Hint: If Soldier Field flooded the way L.P. Field did this past spring you likely would have seen newspaper editorials about how horrible it was for such a landmark to be damaged that way. It wouldn't be out of the question to see fans try to save as much of the original building as possible if it would come to that. Soldier Field is the home away from home and our season ticket waiting list, much like the Packers list, shows that as a cold hard fact. Meanwhile, across the division, the Minnisota Vikings basically had to paper a playoff game, and the Detroit Lions are more likely to have a game blacked out, than to actually win one.
I'm not blasting the fans that these teams have, because they have their die hards as well. However, the same culture doesn't exist for every team, even long standing teams, and the times they are a-changing.
This isn't the 1980's and I'm pretty sure no one except the NFL office is mistaking it as such. The best seat in the house is no longer the 50 yard line, it's on a couch in front of a 50 inch HD set with surround sound. For the cost of a couple of aforementioned great tickets along with the parking costs, and refreshments, not to even mention the flight costs for us out of towners, you could make a huge dent in a set up that would not only rival the views you'd get in the stadium, but outright obliterate them. It's not just the views that suffer in the stadium, but the stadium experience has went from a great day out at most places, to essentially the uglier, nastier version of college games.
For those who haven't had the pleasure to hear the stories, simply look at the crowds in lots of these games. Huge portions of the crowds are absolutely hammered even before the gates open, and it isn't the frat boys that are overindulging, but their older and supposedly wiser brethren. Sadly, these drunken idiots are known to spew more invective and foul language than a Cubs fan in a playoff game, and while they've paid for the seats fair and square, to say that most NFL stadiums aren't a family environment may be the understatement of the year.
The cost to fans to go enjoy a game in the stadium has outstripped the fans ability to pay, even under better economic conditions. The environment in most stadiums has devolved to the point that you've alienated large portions of your rabid fan base. The home theater has outstripped the stadium as the place to see most teams in the league. So, if the NFL wants to go hunting for money and goes after the players for it, I'm going to take the side of the players because they sure aren't my enemy, and the NFL has already proven time and again that they sure aren't my friend.